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Any minimally intelligent discussion of the incoming Biden administration’s trade policy and the role of his pick for U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) needs to recognize at the start that Katherine Tai will make exactly none of the big calls on trade.

That’s not a knock on her specifically. But as nearly always the case (and the Trump administration was a major exception, as its trade envoy, Robert Lighthizer, was a prime author of specific, central initiatives), these decisions will be made way above her pay grade – almost certainly by the President himself or Treasury Secretary-designate Janet Yellen, or a combination of those two, along with the various special interests they need to please.

Even so, Tai will play an important message-bearing and policy defense role, especially in testimony before Congress, and in this vein, her first effort following her brief remarks following her nomination announcement got the Biden team’s record off to a start just ever so slightly above “same-old-stuff” level.

Most noteworthy, puzzling, and perhaps revealing was the choice of audience: the National Foreign Trade Council. For with its membership consisting of U.S. multinationals and big firms from highly protectionist economies like Germany and Japan, it’s long been a pillar of the corporate Offshoring Lobby.

Sure, many of these members have started to voice complaints about their China-related troubles in particular. But they’ve made equally clear that they have no clue as to realistic ways of solving them. In fact, their dogged opposition to unilateral, Trump-like U.S. tariffs as remedies (which have sharply curbed the access to the American market of their overseas production, and the availability of massively subsidized Chinese inputs for their domestic operations) has rendered them big obstacles to the remaining overhaul national trade policy needs.

It’s also true that everything known about Biden’s own long record on the matter, and his own statements during the campaign, makes clear the incoherence – and just as likely cynicism – of his own current stated approach (notably, stressing the imperative of working with – deeply conflicted and chronically fence-sitting — American allies to counter China’s trade and broader economic abuses).

Even so, given the pains Biden took to portray himself as “Middle Class Joe” whose trade initiatives and related decisions would prioritize American worker interests above all else, it needs to be asked why, from a purely political standpoint, his choice for trade negotiator chose an audience whose members have long pushed for exactly the opposite. Why not appear before a union audience?

Just as bizarre, Tai emphasized to these died-in-the-wool offshorers that “The President-Elect’s vision is to implement a worker-centered trade policy. What this means in practice is that U.S. trade policy must benefit regular Americans, communities, and workers.”

What did she and her superiors (who of course cleared her remarks) hope to accomplish with this declaration? Agreement? Or even the beginnings of theological conversion?

Weirder still: Her observation that “people are not just consumers — they are also workers, and wage earners” and, more pointedly, that when thinking about trade, it’s crucial to emphasize that “Americans don’t just benefit from lower prices and greater selection in shops and markets.” After all, her boss emphasized throughout the campaign that “President Trump may think he’s being tough on China. All that he’s delivered as a consequence of that is American farmers, manufacturers and consumers losing and paying more.”

It’s of course possible that Biden and his team could figure out a way to shield the entire U.S. domestic economy, from Chinese – and other countries’ – predatory practices without reducing the price competitiveness of these imports in the U.S. market. But it’s suggestive at the very least that after months on the campaign trail – and many decades in public life – the President-Elect has offered no specifics. And Tai’s speech did nothing to clear up this mystery.

(Not that there’s been any sign of noteworthy trade-related inflation during the “trade war” period – as shown, e.g., here – but one way greatly to boost the odds that tariffs don’t send prices upward would be to accompany trade restrictions with greater anti-trust enforcement that increases domestic competition, as I’ve argued here.)      

Tai advertised her and the broader Biden trade policy points as part of the former Vice President’s promise to “Build Back Better.” So far, though, the most charitable description of these is actually more like “Pretend More Assertively.”