Until a few days ago President Obama was unable to get the world “trade” out of his mouth. The most he could say from the beginning of his Administration in 2009 was “exporting Made-in-America products.”
But last week he spoke a tidal wave of remarks on how good trade is – first to the Business Roundtable (a business grouping of multinationals) and then another organization of corporate giants – the National Foreign Trade Council. He suddenly was lecturing the world on the benefits of trade and why he needed special Presidential trade negotiating authority to negotiate trade deals.
The deluge of trade speak from the Administration started Wednesday morning when new Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs Nathan Sheets commented to a Brookings Institution get-together that the President himself and his employees would work hard to make the argument that trade is good for everybody. He said the Administration intents to make the free-trade argument to anybody who will listen, including members of Congress.
Difference between Day and Night? Possibly.
No one can deny that last Wednesday’s remarks came as a big surprise.
Signals from Administration officials on the need for Trade Promotion Authority to conclude the ongoing TransPacific Partnership and the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have been stated quietly over the past year. But even a few days before the Presidential pronouncement, US Trade Representative Michael Froman was saying that the aim of the Administration was to negotiate good trade agreements – and then Congress would approve them. He was quoting remarks by President Obama made earlier in the year during a visit to Mexico.
(An aside – Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker deserves kudos for unabashedly saying almost since her first days in office that, of course, the President needs TPA – not only to settle the now longer-running than expected trade agreements with the Asia-Pacific and Europe, but, obviously, to pave the way for more US sales around the world.
So why the conversion? The answer –
Administration observers and some members are right in saying that President Obama is looking around for a “legacy” that will make his two terms of “do-nothingness” in office into something tangible.
But why is the President all-of-a-sudden serious about the benefits of trade, even pledging to plead the case with his friends on Capitol Hill – and mostly long-time Democratic opponents of trade deals. He told the Business Roundtable that he intends to tell them to stop fighting “old trade wars” – like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
It is convenient to point out that Candidate Obama in 2008 had pledged to renegotiate NAFTA. He also voted against CAFTA in 2005.
We will see. And, coming from a long-time Washington trade guru, “We will believe it when we see it – on the Hill.”
At January’s state-of-the union address, President Obama called on Congress to give him trade promotion authority. But the silence from the White House in the months that followed until last week have been deafening.
My prediction is that the rhetoric will fade into nothing once again. Recent indications are leading toward that result.
Number 1, although the White House posted a transcript of the President’s remarks to the Business Roundtable on its webpage, a more direct plea for TPA was presented that evening via videotape at the centennial dinner celebration of the National Foreign Trade Council. Neither the video nor transcript of those remarks can be found. (We recorded it and posted it on WTD’s website under “primary sources.”)
Something else missing that evening was US Trade Representative Michael Froman, who decided to skip the event despite the virtual presence of the President and the personal appearance of his direct White House boss, Valerie Jarrett – an affront to the President’s message and to the office of the USTR.
In attendance for the celebration were three former US Trade Representatives and incoming Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
The current USTR, however, was missing – a blatant affront to the President’s message – if it were sincere – and to the office of the USTR.
Number 2. When the President delivers a speech or makes an important remark during the week, it is usually followed by a Saturday White House podcast. Not this time. The weekly Saturday lecture by Professor Obama was about economic job growth – with only a brief phrase on “exporting American products.”
Is the TPA “teach-in” from last Wednesday for real – or a long-delay April Fool’s joke? Will “trade” be uttered out loud more than a few times by the President over the next finally final two years in office?
Let us know what you think.