The late James H. Boren once observed that it’s hard to look up to a leader who keeps his ear to the ground.


So it might be said that U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk wasn’t looking very leader-like on a trip to Arkansas earlier this month. According to news reports, he cited a recent poll in which a majority of Americans expressed doubts about the value of international trade. Then he said that the Obama administration won’t push for free-trade agreements until the public changes its mind.

Excuse me, but aren’t political leaders supposed to lead?

In these trying times, we need men and women with true leadership potential–not cowardly drones who seek merely to join Washington’s herd of poll-sniffing mediocrities.

It’s something to keep in mind as we approach Election Day–and listen to the promises of candidates who say they want us to entrust them with the responsibilities of state.

Granted, a close examination of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal public-opinion survey that Kirk mentioned is a read-it-and-weep experience: 53 percent of Americans said that free-trade agreements have hurt the United States, up from 46 percent three years ago and 32 percent in 1999.

Free-trade agreements may not win any popularity contests right now, but the fact is that we desperately need them–and a lot more of them. One of the main lessons of the 1930s is that economic isolationism can deepen and lengthen downturns, turning recessions into depressions. That’s the rotten legacy of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

Back then, Americans would have profited from better leadership. What they got was Herbert Hoover, a president who knew that anti-trade legislation was a bad idea, but who signed Smoot-Hawley into law anyway.

He buckled to public pressure and did the wrong thing. Today, he’s remembered as a failed leader–and deservedly so.

As we confront our own crisis, we must turn outward rather than inward. We have to sell more American-made goods and services to foreigners. This is especially true in rural areas, where agricultural exports are vitally important to farmers and ranchers.

President Obama seems to understand this. That’s why he has called for the United States to double its exports over the next five years. This is a worthy goal, but reaching it will require hard work.

The good news is that the administration is planning for success. The president has called for a Trans-Pacific Partnership that promises to improve trade ties between the United States and Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Now it wants to add Malaysia to the roster of TPP nations. Last year, Malaysia bought American-made goods and services worth $10 billion, including $700 million in farm products. These figures will rise if the partnership shifts from idea to reality.

The bad news is that Obama’s actual record on trade is disappointing–at least so far. We’re still waiting for Congress to approve free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. They’ve languished for years and Obama has done little to persuade members of his own party to end their obstructionism. To make matters worse, the White House has embraced protectionist schemes involving everything from low-cost tires to long-haul trucking.

Success with any of these trade accords will take genuine leadership–both from the White House as well as from the next Congress. The choices that voters make on November 2 will shape trade policy, for good or ill.

In a democracy, we expect political officials to listen to the opinions of the public but we don’t want them to act as robots who take their marching orders from the latest surveys. “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment,” said Edmund Burke, the great 18th-centuary parliamentarian. “He betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

In other words, political leaders shouldn’t govern by taking polls. They ought to listen to what their constituents say, consider it seriously–and then get down to the real business of leadership.

Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.