Since his presidency began, Barack Obama has left little doubt that the substance of trade policy isn’t his strong suit. For example,
>Near the end of his first year in office, the president claimed that Asia’s generally protectionist economies actually want to buy American products, but that their imports from the United States were weak “partly because we just haven’t been as aggressive as we need to be….”
>Mr. Obama’s White House predicted that his 2012 KORUS trade deal would expand U.S. gross exports of goods to this new bilateral partner by at least $10 billion annually. But on a monthly basis, they’re down nearly 30 percent. From the first four months of 2013 (the first full calendar year during which the agreement has been in effect) to the first four months of this year, U.S. goods exports are down 6.65 percent.
>His administration routinely touts his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal for creating a single market representing 40 percent of the entire world economy. But the president seems unaware that the United States makes up nearly two-thirds of this new trade zone.
Last week, in an interview with BloombergBusinessweek, the president demonstrated that his grasp of the politics of trade is no firmer. On the one hand, Mr. Obama dismissed his interlocutors’ suggestion that he has “not done a good job of selling the benefits of trade to people who feel that this is something that’s taking their jobs, taking away their future” by contending that “the majority of Americans, surveys show, still favor free trade. It’s just that those who are opposed feel it much more intensely.”
Moreover, he added, “If you talk to the younger generation here in the United States, they’re not knee-jerk anti-trade. They’re not anti-globalization. If you look at surveys, it tends to be older workers who are feeling displaced who are attracted to this notion of ‘let’s pull up the drawbridge and shut everybody off.’”
On the other hand, the president insisted that:
“if I am a CEO in a boardroom right now, I should be thinking about, how do I make sure my workers are making a decent wage? And if I’m a shareholder, that is something I should be paying attention to, too, because if you’re not, that’s when you start getting the kinds of political pushback that you’re seeing here in the United States. That’s how you start getting a Brexit campaign. Over time, you’ll strangle this goose that’s been laying you all these golden eggs. Share the eggs.”
That is, Mr. Obama is urging business leaders to wake up and head off a populist revolt that he’s supremely confident won’t take place – especially as nature keeps taking its course and transforms the American population.
There’s no doubt that a politician who has won the White House knows more than a thing or two about public opinion. But these incoherent views on trade politics also strongly suggest that Mr. Obama has been lucky in one key respect: For all the sporadic headlines they made, globalization-related concerns were still largely off voters’ screens during his presidential years.