Monday, May 17, 2010

It's Official: US Trade Policy is an Embarrassment (But That Could Actually be a Good Thing)

Late Friday night, when you were home nestled all snug in your bed (or out at some bar), the White House issued a Presidential Proclamation that May 16-22, 2010 - yes, the week starting 30 hours after the notice was issued - would be World Trade Week:
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 16 through May 22, 2010, as World Trade Week. I encourage all Americans to observe this week with events, trade shows, and educational programs that celebrate the benefits of trade to our Nation, American workers, and the global economy.
I don't know about you, but I have been scrambling ever since the big announcement to put together my event/trade show/educational program - my "celebration!" - of the benefits of "trade" (not "free trade") to our nation.  (The Evite is in the mail!)  Cato's Dan Ikenson has done his part with a stirring blog entry/call-to-arms on US trade policy and the President's obvious love therefor:
Mr. President, I applaud your efforts and recognize that decision must not have come easily. There were probably late-night discussions with your staff, contemplative 2am walks through the Rose Garden, and perhaps some sleepless nights. To even imply that trade may be beneficial to Americans—this close to November, no less—was an act of profound political courage.
Indeed.  Ok, ok.  I think that by now you understand that Dan and I are - shocking, I know! - being rather sarcastic about the President's big announcement.  But can you blame us?  Not only was the White House's press release and proclamation more neutered than Bob Barker's dog, but it also was issued a mere 1.5 days before the exciting week was to officially begin.  Thus, only those of us who are really in-the-know were aware enough to RSVP for such riveting USTR World Trade Week Events like USTR Ron Kirk's closed-to-the-press meeting with South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon, or the environmental roundtable focusing on trade and illegal logging, or the USTR/Labor Dept. meeting of the Sub-Committee on Labor Affairs created under the United States-Morocco FTA.

World Trade Week Fever, baby!  Catch it!

Of course, the other important fact of the Presidential Proclamation's timing was that it was issued as part of the White House's traditional "Friday Night News Dump."  For those of you who don't know, the Obama administration (like its predecessor) has a long history of releasing bad or embarrassing news on Friday night after the evening news cycle so that the announcements' first TV mention won't be until Saturday morning when most normal people are enjoying their weekends and not watching FOX or CNN.  Indeed, the only other time that the Obama White House has released a Friday night international trade announcement was the President's controversial decision to impose prohibitive tariffs against Chinese tires pursuant to "Section 421" of US trade law - a move that's still biting the President (and American exporters) where the sun don't shine.

So why did the White House release the proclamation on Friday night?  Well, I see two possibilities.  First, they're afraid of stirring up controversy with the trade-hating part of their political base, so this was an easy way to keep it under the radar.  But as Ikenson notes above, the World Trade Week announcement didn't have a single controversial word to it.  Consider this riveting excerpt:
To ensure American companies have free and fair access to global markets, we are enforcing existing trade agreements, addressing issues in pending agreements, and forging new ones that protect our businesses, workers, consumers, and environment. We are also opening new markets and encouraging development with trade preference programs. These steps will bring us closer to accomplishing the ambitious goal I set in this year's State of the Union address to double our Nation's exports over the next five years.

As we pursue measures to safeguard our future prosperity, we must remember that we still have the most innovative and productive workers in the world. We have the most dynamic and competitive economy, and we remain the top exporter of goods and services. As other nations and markets grow, our leadership will not be guaranteed. Yet, our success has never been guaranteed. It has been forged through decades of hard work, ingenuity, optimism, and common purpose.

This week, let us renew the enduring principles that have driven our Nation to the forefront of human progress. With our ships, trucks, trains, planes, and fiber optic lines, we will send our goods and services to every corner of the globe. Together, we will make this new century an American century yet again, and secure a bright future for generations to come.
Ok, so is it really plausible that empty words like these were issued as part of a Friday Night News Dump to avoid scrutiny from unions and other anti-traders?  I mean, even with a few important 2010 primaries tomorrow, it seems like a real stretch to think that the AFL-CIO is going to issue an all-points electoral bulletin against the White House's support for America's "innovative and productive workers" or its "ships, trucks, planes and fiber optic lines." 

I guess it's possible, but I'm skeptical that this is another example of White House free trade cowardice - even this White House.  Instead, I think the more likely reason for the President's Friday night announcement is that his administration is truly embarrassed that it has absolutely nothing to announce.  Pending US FTAs with Panama, Colombia and Korea aren't going anywhere this year, and meanwhile it seems like every other country on the planet is implementing their own trade agreements (without the US) at a breakneck pace.  The WTO's Doha Round is absolutely dead, and the United States' inaction is one of the main reasons why.  The Obama administration still hasn't announced a formal trade policy (and might never do so), and USTR's 2010 "trade agenda" has almost no mention of half of the "trade" equation - imports.  Indeed, the administration's top "free trade" moves - the National Export Initiative and the Trans-Pacific Partnership - are so harmless that not even the staunchest of protectionists have found reason to complain (yet).  As I said a while back, calling the NEI and TPP "free trade" is like calling onanism "free love," and that bad joke still applies today.

Now, I've blogged often about the administration's inaction on trade, but over the past several months I've been joined by many other commentators, mainstream news outlets, American business leaders, and US trading partners.  Even political leaders in the President's own party are beginning to complain about our trade non-policy, so for Obama to loudly and publicly announce the beginning of World Trade Week would call even more attention to what's quickly becoming quite the black eye for the White House.  And I can't really blame them for wanting to avoid more scrutiny on this embarrassing issue.

But hey, there's actually a small silver lining to my dark-clouded theory: if I'm correct and the World Trade Week proclamation was issued late Friday out of embarrassment instead of political cowardice, there might still be hope for this administration on free trade.  It shows that they actually comprehend just how bad their trade non-policy is, instead of thinking that they have over the last 16 months crafted a decent free trade policy that needs to be shielded from anti-trader scrutiny during the 2010 election season.  Because if this is really the President's best shot on trade, we're in deep, deep trouble for the next 2+ years.

They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to overcoming that problem.  Maybe the White House's World Trade Week embarrassment is a sign that the President and his advisers have taken, or are almost ready to take, that step.  And if so, maybe there's a little hope for American trade policy after the November mid-term elections.


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