A Trade Agenda? (or not)


It’s a familiar bit of wisdom: Past performance predicts future performance. Employers use it when they hire workers, investors when they pick stocks, and farmers when they choose seeds. Parents even use it raising their children.

Does it also make sense in politics? With President Obama formally accepting the Democratic presidential nomination this week, voters will want to think it over. As they do, they should know that the old adage hasn’t always applied to President Obama.

As an Illinoisan, I’ve been a nonstop constituent of Obama for seven years, since he joined the U.S. Senate. I’ve kept track of him the whole time–especially on trade, which is so important to farmers.

Farmers depend on exports. In a typical year, about one-third of the corn we grow will ship to customers in other countries. Those exports benefit not only agriculture but our whole economy. We need presidents and legislators who will work to reduce trade barriers to American agriculture.

Before becoming president, Obama had a disappointing record on trade. As a United States Senator he voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, an important pact that has boosted U.S. exports to some of our nearest Latin American neighbors.

As a presidential candidate he did not merely oppose pending agreements, he threatened to withdraw from one that already existed: the North American Free Trade Agreement, a crucial economic partnership with Canada and Mexico.

If past performance predicts future performance, candidate Obama’s pre-presidential performance on trade should have led to his becoming a very protectionist president.

Then something happened once elected to the White House: President Obama assumed the burden of leadership. He discovered that the United States depends on free trade, and that the exchange of goods and services with people in other countries helps Americans. It boosts prosperity, creates jobs, and improves diplomatic relations.

“We need to export more of our goods because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America,” he said in his 2010 State of the Union address. “If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores.”

President Obama went on to support the passage of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. They had been negotiated by the Bush administration, but languished as his administration held on to them and Congress refused to vote on them. With Obama’s support, however, they finally made it through last fall and became a reality. Now we’re trading more with each of these countries. The deal with South Korea is a truly big boon to American agriculture, especially for ranchers who produce beef.

President Obama also promised that the United States would double its exports in five years, by the end of 2014. Granted, the pledge began in the midst of a global economic slump, when our exports had sagged. Yet the goal was worthy, and we’re on track to meet it. Last year, for the first time ever, the value of American goods and services sold to foreign customers topped 1 trillion dollars.

The Obama administration is presently trying to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership, an ambitious effort to improve the flow of trade along the rim of the Pacific Ocean.

President Obama has missed important opportunities. He refused to demand a renewal of Trade Promotion Authority, which would improve his ability to bargain with other countries.  His administration has yet to finalize a single trade agreement on its own.

Yet, President Obama’s record is much better than what many of us had anticipated. His past rhetoric and performance on trade did not predict his future performance.

If elected to a second term will President Obama become a stronger advocate for trade and promote an aggressive agenda that will result in American jobs? Or will he turn into the protectionist President we feared?

Between now and Election Day, the president must explain where he wants to take us.

John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in western Champaign County Illinois.  He volunteers as a Board Member for Truth About Trade & Technology.   www.truthabouttrade.org

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John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck operates a corn and soybean farm in western Champaign County, Illinois. He served on the Global Farmer Network Board of Directors, and is a former Chair. John currently serves as Chairman and President of the GROWMARK Board of Directors-a farm supply and marketing cooperative that operates principally in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ontario.

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