In a major policy shift, President Obama is now pursuing efforts to secure free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. The shift was apparent at the recent Latin Summit where Obama had to endure anti-U.S. harangue’s from Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
It was a major disappointment when all of these trade initiatives ran into serious obstacles in the last Congress. Obama’s campaign rhetoric last year was almost the complete opposite and on trade he definitely appealed to protectionists. This was especially true when he went after Hillary Clinton’s past support for NAFTA during the key Ohio primary.
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk is the new U.S. Trade Representative and he supported both NAFTA and CAFTA. Kirk says NAFTA will not be reopened (Obama suggested it in the campaign), and he is emphasizing how trade expands employment. The obstacles for the new trade agreements are on Capitol Hill, not in the Obama Administration. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is now helping the free traders, which puts him on a collision course with Speaker Pelosi.
The opposition is from the labor wing of the Democratic Party. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is introducing legislation which would prevent the pacts being ratified in the current Congress. Democrats like Brown also want to re-open the 1993 NAFTA agreements, but Obama is not going to do it.
The battle is on, and Obama will need significant help. A majority of Democrats in Congress have already voted against the recent trade pacts. Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME) is typical of many of these protectionists. Today he said Obama’s new stand on trade agreements is “absolutely outrageous and a serious mistake. . . This makes no sense whatsoever.” Obama’s U.S. Trade Representative, Ron Kirk has responded: “Now is not the time to turn inward.” This is an Obama flip-flop, but it is also change we can believe in. Obama is also pushing for enactment of the free trade Doha round and the Business Roundtable has today endorsed his efforts.