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The most important takeaway from David Nakamura’s detailed Washington Post piece on President Obama and trade policy is that the president’s evolving views have been shaped by arrogance as well as ignorance. Worse economic news can scarcely be imagined, since Congress is gearing up to decide whether to grant him a blank check (“fast track” authority) for negotiating new deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

Nakamura’s reporting confirms an observation I made back in 2008 when then-Senator Obama was first running for President: He knew nothing important about trade issues and cared less. The best evidence for the former was his constant harping on what he thought were NAFTA’s defects at a time when China had completely eclipsed Mexico as a policy concern. The best evidence for the latter was his website’s almost perfunctory treatment of the subject (especially in contrast to the detailed analysis offered on the internet by one Hillary Clinton).

Fast forward to his years in office, and we see:

>the president’s supreme confidence that he could “get [the country] over these false choices that any agreement is good or all trade is bad. We have to do it differently.”

>Mr. Obama’s belief that China and other Asian countries take seriously Western ideas of “rules” to govern trade and other aspects of international relations, when they have always actively rejected this governing approach in their own countries.

>His conviction that strong environmental and labor standards in trade agreements can be enforced, even though prohibitive amounts of personnel and other resources would be required to monitor effectively entire national manufacturing bases even in relative small economies like Vietnam’s.

>And his claim that he can negotiate agreements that will benefit domestic manufacturing and workers despite (a) the practical impossibility of abolishing the subsidies and informal protections put into effect by secretive foreign bureaucracies that have been the biggest trade-related problems faced by domestic industry and its employees; and (b) the overwhelming evidence that his trade agreement with Korea – the model for the TPP – has failed miserably at meeting this challenge.

Speaking of Korea, it’s the subject of yet another puzzle about the president’s trade policy chops. Yesterday, the Post reported that Seoul has just formally applied to join the TPP talks. Mr. Obama’s response? His administration is focusing on completing a deal with current members. But if the Korea free trade deal (KORUS) has been the roaring success the administration claims, and its structure so closely resembles TPP’s, why should adding Korea even at this late date be a problem?

While serving as Secretary of Defense, Donald W. Rumsfeld famously (and ironically) warned that “unknown unknowns” (what leaders didn’t realize they didn’t know) could be even bigger pitfalls for policy than known unknowns (what leaders did realize they didn’t know). It’s not too late for President Obama to start heeding this advice, and take the steps needed to turn U.S. trade policy into a growth and jobs engine rather than killer.

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