I’m going to skip the fashion tips and focus on the substance of his address–or at least the substance of a particular section. It came almost halfway through, when the president talked about the importance of international trade.
His words on the subject were some of the most encouraging of his presidency.
“We need to export more of our goods,” he said. “Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America.”
Obama went on to call for “a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets” and a willingness to “strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.” He also set a goal of doubling U.S. exports in the next five years.
We’ve come a long way from Candidate Obama, the protectionist flirt who spoke about the possible need to “renegotiate” or even “opt out” of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
On Wednesday night, President Obama transformed into a cheerleader for free trade. “We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are,” he said. “If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores.”
Obama’s political advisors may have warned against this full endorsement of barrier-bashing trade talks. In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Americans cited the economy as a “top priority” and 81 percent mentioned jobs. “Dealing with global trade” was near the bottom, with only 32 percent listing it as a major concern.
But leaders don’t let public-opinion surveys shape their agenda. They use their agendas to shape public opinion.
The economy, jobs, and trade are tightly linked. It’s hard to discuss any one of them without considering all three. Appropriately enough, Obama called for boosting exports and improving trade within the context of fueling economic growth and creating jobs.
So let’s make no mistake, to borrow one of the president’s favorite catch phrases. The time for words is over. The time for deeds is now upon us.
That’s the other thing leaders do: They make things happen. Walt Disney had a saying: "To get started one must quit talking and begin doing!"
If the president is truly committed to expanding America’s trade opportunities, he should first try for a simple accomplishment. How about winning congressional approval for just one of the trade pacts that we’ve already negotiated?
When Obama took office, he inherited three potential trade agreements that his predecessor had tried but failed to finalize. In his State of the Union speech, the president called quite clearly for Congress to ratify these accords with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.
He should pick one and push it through Congress. Panama and Colombia probably stand the best chance of success. They are relatively small and uncontroversial, except among Washington’s most stubborn economic isolationists. They are significantly less ambitious than the other trade goals that Obama identified, such as completing the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks and negotiating a trade agreement with the nations of Asia.
They are also ready for action today. All they require for approval is an up-or-down vote in Congress.
Passage of a trade agreement with Panama or Colombia wouldn’t turn the economy around. Yet both are pieces to a larger puzzle. They would create jobs and improve livelihoods. They would certainly make a big difference in the lives of the workers who make the products that foreign customers want to buy. The same is true for farmers who grow the food that foreign consumers want to eat. They’d also represent an initial step toward Obama’s goal of doubling exports in five years–a down payment on a worthy objective.
When it comes to trade in 2010, Obama is off to an excellent rhetorical start. Now let’s see him get something done.
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota.
Mr. Wanzek serves as a North Dakota Senator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)