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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/11/09

Is U.S. Trade Policy About to Change?

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Created 03/11/2009 - 10:04am
Because of mixed messages from President Obama on trade, many are looking to his nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, to clarify things and answer the fundamental question on trade policy: Which side is the president on? There are encouraging signs.

Let's state the obvious up front: Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 promising a transformative rewrite of America's trade and globalization laws, and those promises helped him win many key industrial states (think: Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania). Since the election, Obama has tempered both his tone and his rhetoric on trade, initially criticizing Buy America laws he promised to support [1], and now raising the possibility that he might advocate a NAFTA-style trade pact with Panama--a country whose refusal to comply with international tax law allows corporations to keep tax revenues from our government at a time of deficits.

Because of the mixed messages, many are looking for Obama's nominee for U.S. Trade Representative--former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk --to clarify things - to answer the fundamental question on trade policy: Which side is the president on? Will the new administration keep advocating more NAFTA-style deals chock full of protectionist provisions for corporate profits (patents, copyrights, subsidies, etc.) but no protections for public priorities (human rights, the environment, wages, etc.)? Or will the new administration fulfill Obama's campaign promises to change things?

Kirk's own record on trade, of course, is as confusing [2] as Obama's. He's criticized proposals to let presidents ram trade deals through Congress and prevent Congress from amending those deals, but he's also, at times, seemed to support this "fast track" authority. He's praised NAFTA and criticized it - and also also touted Obama as an agent of change on trade policy.

At his Senate confirmation hearing this week, however, Kirk took admirable steps towards crystallizing at least an overall perspective that the White House will be working from - and that perspective is encouraging.

As the Associated Press reported, Kirk stressed that "he did not come to the job with 'deal fever' and would make his top priority assuring that existing trade partners live up to the rules in areas like labor rights and environmental protection that are already on the books." When pushed by Republican and Democratic free traders to parrot the same old tired talking points, Kirk largely stood his ground, insisting that while the administration sees the value of commerce and trade, it also believes fundamental changes are necessary.

The hearing seems to have set off something of a chain reaction. The Washington Post's front-page story today reports that, "The Obama administration is aggressively reworking U.S. trade policy to more strongly emphasize domestic and social issues, from the displacement of American workers to climate change." And Reuters [3] says Congress is going to take Kirk at his word, promising to "move quickly this year to give the White House new tools to knock down barriers to U.S. exports and protect U.S. industries from unfair foreign trade."

Certainly, things are not going to change overnight. Kirk, for instance, said the administration will likely press the Panama Free Trade Agreement, and ignore congressional demands [4] to change or reject that trade deal until Panama starts complying with international tax laws. He also said the administration will consider endorsing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement - a pact that candidate Obama specifically lambasted during a 2008 debate with John McCain.

But as the complaints from the most rigid ideological free traders shows, the status quo recognizes that this could be a moment of significant change. Consider, as just one example, how the New York Times editorial board - one of the loudest advocates of NAFTA-style trade pacts - attacked [5] Kirk for merely acknowledging "that not all Americans are winning from it and that our trading partners are not always playing by the rules."- We're expected to believe the mere acknowledgment of that truism is an outrage - when in fact polls have long shown most Americans rightly believe Kirk's statement to be undeniably true.

This kind of Establishment hysteria will only get louder - and if Kirk and the Obama administration are finally getting serious about cobbling together a significantly new and different trade policy, they will need as much grassroots help as possible in passing that policy through Congress and making it the law of the land.

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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)

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