Biggest challenge for Ron Kirk may come from U.S.


The Dallas Morning News
By Todd J. Gillman / The Dallas Morning News
April 9, 2009

WASHINGTON – Hizzoner is now His Excellency.

From his office a few steps from the White House, Ron Kirk, the Dallas mayor turned trade ambassador, now presides over the government’s elite cadre of diplomats and litigators trained to fend off intellectual piracy, deter dumping and pry open markets for American products from beef to wheat to tractors.

"Global trade nearly fell off a cliff last year," Kirk said in his first interview as U.S. trade representative. "Global trade can be and will be a critical component to turning around this economic crisis."

It’s been three weeks since the Senate confirmed Kirk, a lawyer, free-trade advocate and friend of President Barack Obama. And already it’s clear: Kirk’s biggest challenges may come not from protectionism abroad but from "headwinds" at home.

With that in mind, Kirk hasn’t just carved out time getting to know such counterparts as the World Trade Organization director and the European Union trade commissioner (whose title, "baroness," he playfully admired at a photo-op).

He has also been schmoozing key U.S. lawmakers, among them Charlie Rangel, the raspy House chairman who oversees tariffs. They go way back; Rangel even stumped for Kirk in the 2002 Senate race the former mayor lost.

The charm and connections help explain why Obama chose someone who admits his trade expertise is limited. With economic anxiety sapping public support for trade, Obama needed someone with the salesmanship and charisma to tame City Hall and, more recently, command $1 million a year as a lawyer and lobbyist.

Kirk’s charge isn’t merely to cut deals and enforce complex rules. It’s to restore the perception that trade deals can create prosperity, not just send jobs overseas.

"We have got to do a better job of articulating to the American people how these things work," Kirk said.

The trade office is a block west of the White House, in a government building that would be utterly nondescript but for a rather elegant wooden door.

It’s hard to imagine other Obama Cabinet members with a photo array so eclectic. There’s a bearded Kirk with Ann Richards, the governor who named him Texas secretary of state, a springboard that helped him become the first black mayor of a major Texas city in 1995.

There are photos of Kirk with Tiger Woods, Al Gore, Bill Clinton … and George W. Bush.

Kirk has always had a knack for dealing with all sides.

Still, he emphasized, "I didn’t take on this job to complete the third term of George Bush’s trade agenda."

Pacts stay pending

Kirk told Congress he’s in no rush to finish pacts left pending with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The South Korea deal, in particular, needs work, he said, and any new deal must pass the new president’s tests: Do they create and protect U.S. jobs? Is there enough "social accountability" in terms of labor and climate protection?

"He believes in trade, but we believe in a trade that reflects our values and broadly is going to work for all American families," Kirk said.

The real "pot of gold" is a long-stalled round of talks involving 120 or so countries, he added.

It’s a top priority for him, though Europeans are skeptical about Obama’s commitment to completing the talks, which started in 2001.

And the benefits the talks offer the U.S. are vague, while requirements to curb farm subsidies and other trade barriers are explicit.

And that’s hardly his only gnarly problem. The "Buy America" provision Congress inserted in the recent economic-stimulus legislation undermined U.S. denunciations of protectionism in the view of many allies and trade analysts, though Kirk defends it.

"The Buy America provision was done in a way that is wholly and completely consistent with our obligations under the WTO and our other bilateral trade agreements," he insisted.

And there’s a trade spat with Mexico over Congress’ decision to bar Mexican trucks, in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. That prompted retaliatory tariffs on $2.4 billion in U.S. goods last month. Whatever lawmakers’ reasons – he was careful not to antagonize anyone whose support he’ll need – there were "unintended consequences" on the U.S. job market.

For U.S. exporters, he said, "the damage is real. It was a hard lesson to learn."

Kirk’s relationships in Congress could prove critical as he pushes Obama’s agenda.

Richard W. Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve and deputy trade representative under Bill Clinton, called Kirk’s ability to cultivate such relationships more valuable than mastery of trade minutiae.

"You learn that stuff if you’re smart, and Ron is smart," he said. "You know Washington – access is everything. … I used to say it was easy to negotiate with the Chinese. The tough part is negotiating with the American Congress."

The Senate ended up confirming Kirk 92-5, but he waited three months for that vote, longer than any other Obama nominee. The vetting revealed $10,000 in unpaid taxes, which Kirk rectified.

Busy while waiting

The delay gave him time to steep himself in trade policy. He consulted with Fisher and a few of the 15 previous trade representatives. Bush’s, Susan Schwab, has been generous with advice and encouragement, he said.

And Kirk has spent time with Robert Strauss, now 90, the legendary Dallas lawyer who served as Jimmy Carter’s trade representative, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Moscow, and Democratic chairman, a post that Kirk briefly sought four years ago.

His basic approach: he’s not interested in "deal fever." Enforcing the rules already in place is a far higher priority than hammering out new pacts. On Tuesday, for instance, he announced $54.8 million worth of tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber.

But he’d rather build relationships than get litigious, he said.

It might take four or five years to resolve a formal complaint through the World Trade Organization, he said, and "if you are a cattle producer in Texas, if you are growing wheat in Montana or rice somewhere else, you are ultimately better served if I can pick up the phone and talk with one of my counterparts in whatever country, and get this resolved sooner than later."

Kirk led trade missions to Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, Mexico and Canada during his six years as mayor. Previous trade ambassadors have spent two-thirds of their time overseas. Kirk says in his new job, he’ll travel plenty, but only when he sees a real chance to open markets and create jobs.

"I’m not just going for the sake of going," he said.

The first official trip is next week, to the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He’ll meet in Paris this summer with Asia-Pacific trade ministers. No telling how many times he’ll get his passport stamped by then.

He’s due in Dallas this weekend and plans to get there "when I can" to see his wife and daughters, he said. "This was a big family sacrifice."
About Ron Kirk’s new position

Title: U.S. trade representative. The position is considered an ambassadorship and has Cabinet rank.

Salary: $196,700

Employees: More than 200 in Washington and Geneva

Duties: Principal presidential adviser, negotiator and spokesman on trade. Works to open foreign markets to U.S. exports and protect U.S. farmers, manufacturers, workers and consumers from unfair competition. Coordinates trade policy with Congress, secretaries of state and commerce, and the president’s other economic advisers.

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