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Who Is Pandering Here?

Listening to President Obama speak before the Business Roundtable yesterday, I nearly choked on my Coke. He sounded almost as wary of surging protectionist sentiment as Francis Fukuyama in a duty-free shop.The necessity of resisting trade skepticism, Obama said, was a lesson from the 1930s, when countries fell into a deadly cycle of predatory tariff hikes and currency devaluations. America needs a “strong statement that encourages trade,” Obama insisted.

Perhaps from Obama's pick for U.S. trade rep? No such luck. At his confirmation before the Senate Finance Committee earlier this week, Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk sounded like he was ready to rip up a series of carefully negotiated trade agreements then and there, unless other countries bowed to the parochial concerns of American unions. Kirk assured senators that he didn’t have “deal fever,” signaling a break with the Bush administration’s rather modest efforts to expand international trade. Instead, he would focus on prosecuting other countries in international trade court and on adding “benchmarks” to deals still awaiting congressional action. Benchmarks? Judging from his testimony, he almost certainly meant adding new conditions to trade agreements, which will slow or even stop them from proceeding. Now that’s a strong statement on trade.

So who was pandering, Obama or his soon-to-be trade rep? During the campaign, observers guessed that Obama really got it. And after wrapping up the Democratic nomination, he acknowledged that his anti-trade rhetoric had been “overheated.” But the administration's enduring incoherence on trade allows other countries -- and Congress, for that matter -- to assume that Obama doesn’t care much about the issue and wouldn’t really mind if they loaded economic rescue packages with odious sops to domestic industries. That hurts everyone, not least of all the American exporters who helped prop up the economy before the financial crisis dealt its latest blows.

And Obama’s position can only be opaque for so long. With an increasingly aggressive group of protectionists in Congress, he will eventually have to take a stronger stand. Let’s hope we get Thursday’s Obama rather than Monday’s Kirk.

By Stephen Stromberg  | March 13, 2009; 7:49 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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As the days pass, I am starting to be convinced that all the angst, urgency, and leadership displayed during the campaign was just a marketing strategy. This administration after promising realistic goals, responsibility, and complete transparency is showing to be just as political as any other. The problem is neither the Bush nor the Clinton administrations made promises about ethics, transparency, and bipartisanship that the Obama administration has promised. So when the criticism of this administration becomes harsh (from even its well wishers), the WH shouldn't be surprised. They set the bar and are struggling to even make it appear that they are trying to reach it.

Posted by: Illinoismom | March 14, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

I believe Obama is trying to do his best with the cards he has been dealt but it is a very difficult situation.

He wants to help the people, but he can't without devaluing the currency and enraging our creditors, China and Saudi Arabia.

These two wars Bush left us are very much responsible for this condition we find ourselves in now.

Posted by: JRM2 | March 14, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

there is a trade war going on -- china , europe , etc are fighting it USA is getting hit but throwing any punches

Posted by: oldhat | March 14, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Only 11% of GDP is due to exports. Keep in mind that they even count imported raw materials that are shipped to their Mexico and Canadian plants as exports. Corporate America has used trade agreements to outsource jobs and import cheap junk for Americans to buy. When the financial sector jobs went bust due to their corruption we are now without jobs in manufacturing to keep this country going. Corporate America does not like the idea that we at last have a President that cares about the people. President Obama is no fool and knows what is going on. I pray that he will stay strong and continue to fight for this country and its people.

Posted by: jd2408 | March 14, 2009 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Come on, give the O. Admin a break. They are merely doing a good cop/bad cop routine, and that's almost a necessity in trade negotiations.

Posted by: sonofyork | March 15, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Right, trade is great and the hell with domestic industries!

This would maybe work if other countries thought the same - but they do not. All asian countries use protectionist policies when they support their strategic industries. Same goes for Europe - ever thought why European cars sold in US are mostly built in Europe, but ALL GM and Ford cars sold there are made in Europe?

Should we surrender our industrial capacity because some other country is willing to pollute more or expose their workers to harmful chemicals or unsafe machinery? Globalization the way it was created in the last 15 years does not answer these questions.

Posted by: iveksler | March 16, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

lol you weren't choking on coke, you were choking on butt hairs sucked up by your incredible ass licking skills. I'm sure the rethugs just love your mouth.

Posted by: gabbamonkey | March 16, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

We all benefit from international trade. Low prices on consumer goods are the result of Chinese imports which are the direct result of outsourced jobs. We can "save" a few jobs here, and we'll have less overall employment and less overall wealth. Lets beggar ourselves so we feel better--stupid policy.
The only constancy in life is change, and that includes jobs and ecomomics.

Posted by: bruce18 | March 16, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Obama needs a teleprompter to keep his pronouncements even intelligible. You want coherence among multiple administration representatives, too? Though expected in his pay grade, that's above his capability to manage at this time - prior to this, th most complicated project he tackled was as a community organizer.

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | March 16, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

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