His inability to secure a trade agreement with South Korea represents a major setback for a White House that had staked a lot on the successful completion of the accord. It also raises serious questions about the president’s comprehension of the challenges to achieve trade agreements and the importance of America’s economic engagement with the world.
On free trade, the president has over-promised and under-delivered.
Earlier this year, during his State of the Union address, he appeared to understand the vital importance of international trade. “The more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America,” he said. “We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are. If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores.”
Then he set the goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015–a worthy objective that we and others have publicly applauded and supported – but also an ambitious one that requires genuine political skill and diplomatic leadership. Farmers and many other Americans whose livelihood depends on exports had the audacity to hope that Obama would do everything in his power to make good on this personal commitment.
One of the first steps was to approve three trade agreements that had languished for years. The Bush administration had finished accords with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, but they had yet to receive congressional approval due to obstructionism, mainly within Obama’s own party.
The pacts with Colombia and Panama remain important, but they’re also dwarfed by the deal with South Korea, our seventh-largest trading partner. A successful agreement with Korea would become America’s biggest trade accord since NAFTA–a pact finalized by Bill Clinton, Obama’s Democratic predecessor–and mark a significant step toward the goal of doubling exports.
Obama said he would get it done. In June, he gave himself the deadline of last week’s G-20 summit in Seoul. This seemed like a reasonable date because it pushed the issue beyond the midterm elections, safeguarding it from demagoguery.
On the Sunday after the elections, Obama contributed an op-ed to the New York Times. He offered a powerful argument for free trade.
“The great challenge of our time is to make sure that America is ready to compete for jobs and industries of the future.” he wrote. “It can be tempting, in times of economic difficulty, to turn inward, away from trade and commerce with other nations. But in our interconnected world, that is not a path to growth, and this is not a path to jobs.”
Obama also singled out the specific opportunity with South Korea. “President Lee Myung-bak and I will work to complete a trade pact that could be worth tens of billions of dollars in increased exports and thousands of jobs for American workers. Other nations like Canada and members of the European Union are pursuing trade pacts with South Korea, and American businesses are losing opportunities to sell their products in this growing market. We used to be the top exporter to South Korea; now we are in fourth place and have seen our share of Korea’s imports drop in half over the last decade.”
What happened to the man who wrote these words? Well, he didn’t seal the deal. The president’s self-imposed deadline has come and gone and he has done nothing tangible to increase trade –just more words.
This is what kids call an “epic fail.”
Right after the elections, Obama confessed to a “shellacking” by voters. His failure in Korea is a variation on the same theme–a shellacking suffered at the hands of Big Labor, which rigidly opposes just about any trade policy that doesn’t involve economic isolationism.
The president says that he still wants an agreement. He has suggested that perhaps he’ll get it done in the next few weeks.
I sincerely hope he’s right because success would benefit Americans and begin to ease our economy out of the doldrums. At the same time, I’m becoming less hopeful that he really wants to accomplish anything in this area.
Obama should go back and read his own words–and then he should lead like a president who really wants to lead America forward on trade.
Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans on a NE Iowa family farm. Tim volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org