When President Obama nominated Michael Froman as U.S. Trade Representative last week, he cracked a joke about an old friend.
“We went to law school together,” said the president. “He was much smarter than me then. He continues to be smarter than me now.”
Is Froman really smarter than President Obama, who graduated with highest honors from Harvard Law School? Who cares? The important point is that the men were students together more than two decades ago, when they labored over issues of the Harvard Law Review and built a personal bond that may hold the key to jump starting America’s trade agenda.
The Senate should move swiftly to confirm Froman, so that he can move on and push for the trade agreements with Asia and Europe that hold enormous potential to fuel economic growth and create jobs in the United States.
Froman is currently the president’s deputy national security advisor for international affairs. He has represented the president at meetings of the G8 and G20. President Obama has credited Froman with helping secure final approval of the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.
So Froman’s resume looks promising. Yet the thing that matters most may be his personal connection to the president: Froman has the president’s ear.
News reports indicate that after Harvard, the two men fell out of touch. In 2004, however, Froman learned that Obama was running for the Senate from Illinois. So he contacted his old pal, offered his services, and has been a close advisor ever since.
Froman knew Obama before it was cool.
This really matters. For a U.S. Trade Representative to succeed, he must enjoy the complete confidence of the White House. But that’s not sufficient. He also needs to have constant access to the president. If trade talks bog down, Froman will be able to phone the Oval Office–and know that President Obama will take his call and help him maintain positive momentum.
Perceptions are important as well. Trade diplomats from Brussels to Tokyo will know that Froman has a direct line to Obama–a fact that will encourage them to take Froman seriously as a negotiating partner.
This may carry a special payoff right now. The World Trade Organization is on the verge of selecting a new leader, meaning that the United States and the WTO could improve a troubled relationship.
Former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who left office two months ago, was in many ways a capable man. And he was a political ally of the president, but not an old friend. This may have played a small part in the Obama administration’s sluggish first-term trade agenda.
President Obama has talked a good game on trade, promising to double exports by 2015 and to pursue ambitious agreements with Asia, Europe, and the rest of the world.
The reality, however, however, has failed to match the rhetoric. Exports have not grown as quickly as the president vowed. The Trans Pacific Partnership remains a tantalizing possibility rather than a done deal. Trade talks with the European Union have yet to achieve liftoff. The Doha round of WTO negotiations is kaput.
Last year, President Obama even suggested eliminating the office of U.S. Trade Representative, combining its duties with those of the Secretary of Commerce. Although the federal government should strive to reduce its bureaucratic bulk, this was a lousy idea. The United States needs a cabinet-level official whose exclusive portfolio is trade diplomacy.
The fact that President Obama nominated Froman on the same day he announced the nomination of Penny Pritzker as Commerce Secretary suggests that the president has abandoned the plan to consolidate these two jobs. This is a welcome development.
To a certain extent, however, Froman’s abilities and authority are just details. More than anything else, a robust trade agenda requires a president who is fully committed to breaking down barriers that prevent the flow of goods and service across borders.
The nomination of Froman is a good sign. Now the Senate should do its part to help the Obama-Froman friendship move into its next and most important phase.
Dean Kleckner is Chairman Emeritus of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.