Free trade is having a bad year in the United States. It’s not something we expected. In fact, most of us had ‘high hopes’ when we listened to President Obama and USTR Ambassador Kirk assure us that trade was at the top of the economic agenda in 2011.


 I’m disappointed and I’m not alone. We should be growing jobs and the economy by passing free trade agreements already negotiated with Colombia, South Korea and Panama. Instead, the political blame-game has more players than ever and freer trade is not just paralyzed….we’re going backwards.

This bad year may be the right time to use the political ‘stage’ and make the good case for freer trade – again. The primary season offers all candidates the opportunity to state their case for trade and the American economy. What we need is an authoritative voice to get the conversation started.

“In America, any boy may become president,” said Adlai Stevenson. “I suppose it’s just one of the risks he takes.”

Here in Iowa, a bunch of boys–and a girl or two–are running for the Republican presidential nomination. Among the GOP contenders, along with the President, who will be front and center on the political stage, will be Jon Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah.

Huntsman may be one of the candidates who is best equipped to share his experiences and talk about freer trade as an issue that is vital to the U.S. and global economic recovery.

For a number of years, promoting free trade was his full-time occupation. In the first Bush administration, he was a trade official in the Department of Commerce. Later, he became Ambassador to Singapore. In the second Bush administration, he was a Deputy U.S. Trade Representative and involved in the launch of the Doha round of world trade talks.

So this is a guy who knows a few things about global economics and trade diplomacy.

That’s nothing to take for granted in a presidential race. Consider the case of Barack Obama. When he was running for the White House, he was very anti-trade and talked about quitting the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Since becoming president, however, Obama has talked positively about trade. A key part of his economic strategy involves doubling exports by 2015. In his last two State of the Union addresses, Obama has called for congressional approval of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Recently (and regrettably) he has allowed these promising deals to become bogged down in the budget dispute with Congress, perhaps at least in part because he hasn’t fully abandoned the views he articulated as a candidate.

As the 2012 campaign lurches forward, Huntsman is in a unique position to elevate the debate about free trade. His background will allow him to discuss the issue with authority and describe how it leads to good jobs for workers and lower prices for consumers. American farmers have a special stake in this conversation because so much of what we produce must be sold in foreign markets.

We need all the candidates, including Huntsman, to challenge the president directly on those three pending trade agreements–and even compel Obama to push them forward. Real action on the free trade agreements will provide a much needed stimulus for the U.S. economy.

Fortunately, Huntsman is not the only Republican candidate who is talking up trade. On June 7, Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, delivered a major address on economics. He called for passage of the trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. He also went on the offense against the White House: “President Obama set a goal of doubling exports. Yet his policies have prevented this. Mine will achieve it.”

On April 12, candidate Mitt Romney called for a global trading body that would be of a ‘higher standard’ than the World Trade Organization, discussing the need to protect intellectual property and stating “…if you want to have real trade with America and our friends around the world, you need to abide by a higher standard.”

The other Republican candidates will need to explain their own trade views. Some may join Pawlenty with specific calls for action. Others may dodge the issue or even embrace the toxic politics of protectionism.

What we’ll have, however, is a richer and healthier campaign in which voters gain an opportunity to know what these would-be presidents really believe.

I don’t yet know who I’ll support in the 2012 presidential election, but I know that he (or she) will have a freer trade philosophy.

Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.