Missing in Action: Where is Obama's Trade Policy?

July 22, 2009
While U.S. trade rep Kirk warns labor law violations will be investigated, Obama remains silent.

For a president who has spent the last six months juggling two wars, a health care overhaul, lobbying for cap-and-trade legislation, re-regulating the financial world and selling a new nuclear treaty with the Russians, Barack Obama has been conspicuously quiet on trade.

Part of that has to do with his circumstances. The top trade items close to approval when Obama entered the White House -- agreements with Columbia, Panama and South Korea -- were written with priorities emphasized by the Bush administration.

But even if Obama isn't directly addressing trade himself, he's certainly sending signals that his administration plans on attacking the issue. United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk struck a strident tone last week in a speech at U.S. Steel's plant in Braddock, Penn., when he threatened that the U.S. could preemptively investigate possible labor violations in any of the 14 countries which it has signed trade agreements with in the last eight years.

"We've been more eager in selling the benefits of trade than we have been vigilant in enforcing trade agreements," said Kirk. "Enforcement cannot be an afterthought; it needs to be the centerpiece of trade policy."

Kirk's words highlight the Obama administration's change from prior practice, which saw the U.S. only examine labor practices in countries in which complaints had been made. Obama emphasized repeatedly during his presidential campaign a need for enforcement of trade deals and to strengthen labor provisions.

"We will immediately identify and investigate labor violations before they can disadvantage American workers," said Kirk. "Together, we will engage governments of countries that violate the rules, to restore workers' rights quickly. If those governments can't seem to fix their labor problems, we will help them find a way. And if they won't fix their labor problems, we will exercise our legal options."

But it might not be that easy. The Obama administration is facing a highly skeptical Democratic majority in Congress, politically aligned with labor, wary of free trade agreements signed during the Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

Two of the staunchest opponents of new trade agreements is Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat from Maine's 2nd District, who has introduced trade reform legislation to Congress that would set far stronger labor, environmental and food and product safety standards for future trade agreements. The bill has 109 co-sponsors, alarming trade proponents throughout industry and manufacturing.

In response to Kirk's speech, Brown said enforcing current standards would not sway him to support new agreements.

"We should not confuse a key part of the USTR's job -- trade enforcement -- with a new direction in trade policy," said Brown. "Our trade strategy is broken."

The National Association of Manufacturers was highly supportive of Kirk's emphasis on enforcement, but wants to see a greater push for completing the agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

"We can't enforce agreements until we have them -- and we want more of these great agreements so American companies get a fairer deal in world trade and create more jobs at home," the group said in a statement.

That isn't about to happen anytime soon. As Obama's summer legislative priorities have narrowed to healthcare, there is little room to tackle trade.

If there is going to be any positive momentum on addressing the issue, says Christopher Wenk, U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior director of international policy, Obama himself has to set the course.

What were really waiting for is for the president to come out forcefully in support of a trade agenda, says Welk. Weve been hearing for quite some time that hes going to outline a broad trade policy. Its one thing for Ambassador Kirk to be doing it, but when it comes to trade, theres no better example of an issue where you need presidential leadership. Hes got to be the one out there front and center.

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