President Obama has repeatedly tried to justify to critics his progressive trade policy bona fides by acknowledging how far so many previous trade deals have fallen short of their promises – and then insisting that his proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a companion European deal are incorporating the right lessons.
The trouble is, the rest of his administration doesn’t seem to have gotten this message, conveying the impression of a government speaking literally out of both sides of its mouth – and therefore undeserving of sweeping new fast track trade negotiating authority.
Speaking at the headquarters of offshoring-happy Nike earlier this month, the president acknowledged that “past trade agreements, it’s true, didn’t always reflect our values or didn’t always do enough to protect American workers. But that’s why,” he insisted, “we’re designing a different kind of trade deal.”
Addressing progressive activists in Washington a few weeks earlier, Mr. Obama was even more emphatic:
“[P]ast trade deals didn’t always live up to the hype. A lot of trade deals didn’t include the kinds of protections that we’re fighting for today. And I saw it in Chicago and in towns across Illinois where manufacturing collapsed, plants closed down, jobs dried up. When I ran for office, I’d talk about a man I met who had to pack up his own plant before he was laid off. And that made a mockery of the value of community and the dignity of work. So for a lot of Americans, they attribute those changes to what happened in the aftermath of trade agreements. And I understand that. But we’ve got to make sure we learn the right lessons from that.”
No one, however, seems to have told the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office, the Commerce Department, or even the White House staff.
Thus according to USTR, “The process of opening world markets and expanding trade, initiated in the United States in 1934 and consistently pursued since the end of the Second World War, has played an important role in the development of American prosperity. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, American real incomes are 9% higher than they would otherwise have been as a result of trade liberalizing efforts since the Second World War. In terms of the U.S. economy in 2013, that 9% represents $1.5 trillion in additional American income.
“Such gains arise in a number of ways. Expanding the production of America’s most competitive industries and products, through exports, raises U.S. incomes. Shifting production to the most competitive areas of our economy helps raise the productivity of the average American worker and through that the income they earn. With the ability to serve a global market, investment is encouraged in our expanding export sectors and the rising scale of output helps lower average production costs. Such effects help strengthen America’s economic growth rate. Moreover, imports increase consumer choice, and help keep prices low raising the purchasing power for consumers. Imports also provide high quality inputs for American businesses helping companies and their U.S. employees become or remain highly competitive in both domestic and foreign markets.”
What’s not to like?
Then there’s Commerce: “Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have proved to be one of the best ways to open up foreign markets to U.S. exporters. Trade Agreements reduce barriers to U.S. exports, and protect U.S. interests and enhance the rule of law in the FTA partner country. The reduction of trade barriers and the creation of a more stable and transparent trading and investment environment make it easier and cheaper for U.S. companies to export their products and services to trading partner markets. In 2014, 47 percent of U.S. goods exports went to FTA partner countries. U.S. merchandise exports to the 20 FTA partners with agreements in force totaled $765 billion, up 4 percent from 2013. The United States also enjoyed a trade surplus in manufactured goods with our FTA partners totaling $55 billion in 2014.”
In other words, and contrary to the president, past free trade deals have indeed promoted American values as well as American economic interests.
Finally, the White House itself: “The Administration has made progress in expanding global trade opportunities for U.S. exporters by signing into law three trade agreements, enforcing U.S. companies’ rights under existing trade agreements, and strengthening trade relationships in major emerging markets.” So it seems like the president learned the right trade policy lessons even before launching into the TPP talks?
It’s perfectly reasonable (if factually challenged) for U.S. officials to argue that past trade deals have been big successes, and that therefore America needs more of them. It’s also perfectly reasonable for Mr. Obama to claim that past trade deals have often failed, but that he’s discovered a real recipe for success. But it’s anything but reasonable for a single administration to be taking both positions. If anything, it’s a tell-tale sign of a time-honored political trick: Throw enough mud at a wall and expecting some of it to stick.