President Obama mentioned trade only once during his farewell address on Tuesday night: “I agree that our trade should be fair and not just free.”
In a speech that featured a bit of bragging, he sounded defensive about trade—even a little apologetic.
That’s too bad because his support of free-trade agreements represents one of the most positive parts of his legacy, especially from the perspective of farmers and ranchers. He ought to have bragged—and he should have saved the apologies for his regulatory overreach.
President Obama came into office as a protectionist. As a candidate on the campaign trail in 2008, he sounded a lot like President-elect Trump does now, threatening to undo NAFTA and more. Yet he soon changed his mind, pivoting to the view that free trade fuels economic growth.
That’s certainly true for farmers and ranchers like me: To thrive, we need customers in other countries interested and willing to buy food grown in America. This helps more than food producers. It also helps the food processors and others in manufacturing who supply the agriculture sector with so many of its tools.
We all benefit from trade.
Once President Obama understood this, he became an advocate. “We need to export more of our goods,” he said seven years ago, in his State of the Union address. Then he promised that the United States would double its exports over the next five years. Although exports did increase, they didn’t come close to this objective—but I won’t fault the President for setting a worthy goal.
President Obama’s major success on trade involved the completion of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and—most significantly—South Korea. All three have opened markets for Americans, and lower tariffs in Korea have allowed my own ranch to enjoy new beef sales.
The global hunger for protein continues to grow, especially in Asia. Sadly, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have unlocked additional export opportunities for U.S. farmers and ranchers in Japan and elsewhere, is in serious peril due to President-Elect Trump’s strong vocal opposition.
President Obama had the right idea on TPP—but he lacked the wherewithal to see it approved before leaving office.
So give President Obama two cheers on trade: He had the good sense to abandon protectionist views and delivered a few concrete accomplishments, but he also might have achieved more.
Perhaps he should have dedicated himself to trade the way he dedicated himself to the expansion of the regulatory state.
In this area, President Obama failed farmers and ranchers. Instead of trying to make it easier for us to supply our country and world with food, his administration put obstacles in our way.
Consider the so-called “Waters of the United States” rule, in which the Environmental Protection Agency plotted one of the biggest violations of private property imaginable with a regulation that would have given it authority to oversee not just navigable waters, but just about any piece of land that ever holds standing water.
I live in a dry part of Oklahoma. We don’t see much rain. So you wouldn’t think that this EPA rule would affect my farm.
And yet it does because of buffalo wallows—age-old depressions in the landscape created by buffalos who roamed here long ago. They’ve survived more than a century of tilling and have become an enduring part of the topography on our farm and many others.
They also collect water for a couple of days each year, creating the occasion for the EPA to launch its power grab.
Thankfully, the courts have blocked this rule—and I’m hopeful that under a new EPA headed by my fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt, we’ll see the agency quit its mad pursuit of this burdensome and provocative regulation.
We simply faced too many regulatory challenges from the Obama administration. These include rules that try to limit how much dust farmers and ranchers can kick up, even as we live in regions serviced by dusty dirt roads. In my area, we’ve also suffered attempts to list the lesser prairie chicken as an endangered species, ignoring voluntary conservation measures that were already working to restore the species and seriously threatening private property rights.
Farmers and ranchers want a federal government that works as our partner, expanding trading opportunities and working with us to create sensible regulations based on sound science. Too often, over the last eight years, Washington has been our regulatory foe.
So give President Obama a passing mark on trade and an F on regulations.
President-Elect Trump may offer the reverse: much-needed regulatory relief, but also a dose of protectionism that will make us nostalgic about the Obama administration’s approach to trade. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I – and farmers and ranchers across the country – will be sharing our perspective regarding how trade positively impacts all of our lives. Trade matters.