The Obama administration’s second-term shakeup will include a new top trade diplomat as the current U.S. Trade Representative, Ron Kirk, is eyeing the exit door.
There’s no official announcement yet, but Kirk’s departure is one of the worst-kept secrets in the capital. “He intends to leave Washington and head back to Dallas,” where he once was mayor, reports the Washington Post.
As President Obama reboots a cabinet that will include a new Secretary of State and director of the CIA, he’ll want to make sure he settles on a trade ambassador who not only has his full confidence but also a high level of credibility with foreign leaders.
An excellent choice is available: Richard Lugar, the Republican senator from Indiana.
Under normal circumstances, Lugar wouldn’t even consider the job. Earlier this year, however, he lost his party’s primary election. Lugar had hoped to serve one more term in the Senate and then retire after a long career.
By tapping Lugar, President Obama would send a powerful signal to a divided country that’s sick of partisan gridlock. He pursued the same strategy in his first term with the appointment of former Republican congressman Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation. LaHood has indicated that he doesn’t plan to stick around for another four years. As with Kirk, there’s been no formal notice, but all signs point to a departure.
Lugar is a natural option. For one thing, the President and Lugar have a strong relationship, going back to their days in the Senate. They collaborated as members of the Foreign Relations Committee and traveled together to Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.
In 2007, when Obama announced that he was running for president, he invoked Lugar’s name. “Politics don’t have to divide us,” he said. “I’ve worked with Republican senator Dick Lugar.” During one of his presidential debates with John McCain in 2008, Obama said that for foreign-policy advice, he sought Lugar’s counsel. President Obama even cut campaign commercials that showed images of the Hoosier. Lugar had not endorsed Obama, but neither did he ask for Obama to take down the ads.
In addition to showing bipartisanship and enjoying Obama’s trust, Lugar possess several other important qualities. Popular among his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he would coast through Senate confirmation. He also possesses an outstanding record of free-trade votes. He has been a consistent supporter of free-trade agreements and presidential Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).
Farmers would cheer the choice as Lugar has chaired the Senate’s agriculture committee and he knows how much farmers depend on exports.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, ranks Lugar as one of the Senate’s most reliable friends of free trade. Over the last two decades, Lugar has cast 55 votes on issues involving trade barriers. According to Cato, he has voted to remove restraints to trade on 53 occasions–more than 96 percent of the time.
Senators don’t have bosses, except perhaps for voters, and Lugar would have to agree to take direction from the White House. The late Earl Butz, who was Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon and Ford administrations, once told me how it works: “The president and I have a deal,” he said. “When we don’t agree, we do things his way.”
So Lugar would have to agree to do things Obama’s way. But perhaps he could also become the strong voice for trade that the Obama administration desperately needs, as it seeks to make good on a promise to double exports by 2015 and complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a potentially blockbuster trade pact whose success will require a skilled negotiator who knows his way around foreign capitals as well as the halls of Congress.
Serving as U.S. trade representative would be a worthy capstone to a distinguished career. Obama should seize this unique opportunity and invite Lugar to join his team, for the good of the country.
Dean Kleckner serves as Chairman Emeritus of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).