SINGAPORE, April 29—Here in one of the world’s great international trading cities, watching CNN’s breathless coverage of the change that President Barack Obama has brought to America could be likened to eating a meal without the main course. Yes, there is a changed diplomatic tone in Washington (if no results yet) and a new economic environment associated with the president’s economic stimulus package (again, with no results yet), And there are promises of major changes to come, ranging from a dazzling array of big-ticket issues like health care, energy, climate change, and so on. But the main course, the one topic of real importance to any major trading crossroads like Singapore, involves international trade. On this, the television pundits have said almost nothing about where Obama is heading. Yet, the one question I’ve been asked the most since arriving here earlier this week is: What sort of change does Obama have in mind regarding his administration’s international trade agenda? And also this: What priority does the man who was elected promising that his administration would set policies based on the national interest, and not the narrower agendas of Washington’s famous protectionist lobbies, give to international trade?
Nobody knows the answers. Three months-and-counting into his term, nobody yet knows what Obama’s trade priorities really are, or where his administration is headed on trade. On one hand, the president and his top trade negotiator, Ron Kirk, seem to have begun to move away from some of the more embarrassing Obama protectionist campaign promises aimed at restricting trade flows, the most (in)famous of which was to threaten to abrogate NAFTA if the Canadians and Mexicans wouldn’t re-negotiate it to protect American jobs. But at the same time, others close to the administration, such as the red-hot protectionist Democrat from Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown, say they have come away from talks with the White House on the same subject, believing that the president is really on their side.
So does Leo Gerard, the president of the United Steelworkers. Gerard, who worked overtime to put Obama in the White House, has reason to think that he put the president in his pocket during the 2008 presidential campaign. Specifically, Gerard extracted a written promise that Obama, once in the White House, would be sympathetic to working with the steelworkers to roll back trade with China. And on April 20, Gerard and his Washington trade lawyer, Terrence Stewart, formally informed the president that they thought it was payback time. Now, one way or the other, the president will have to act. Either he will jump to the tune of the steel lobby, or he won’t. Specifically, the president will have to tell the world whether he is prepared to try to drive up the prices that American consumers pay for the tires they buy for their automobiles — and if he is prepared to slap on quotas to cap the amount of tires that Americans will be allowed to import from China.
Here’s what’s been going on, and what to watch for:
President Barack Obama has tapped Miriam Sapiro to be a deputy U.S. trade representative. If confirmed by the Senate, Sapiro, 48, will be one of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk’s three top policy officials. Along with fellow deputies Peter Allgeir and Demetrios Marantis, Sapiro will play an important role in shaping U.S. trade policies in the Obama administration.
But what role will that be? What policies? How does her professional experience fit in with the other senior members of Kirk’s top team? Sapiro, whose experience with trade issues is slim, is not well known in the Washington trade community (although two prominent Washington-based corporate lobbyists, Bob Vastine, who runs the Coalition of Service Industries; and Bill Lane, Caterpillar Inc.’s man in D.C., speak well of her).
At USTR, a Kirk spokeswoman referred all questions on Sapiro’s background to the White House, saying that she was not in a position to comment about a pending nomination. The White House was no more forthcoming. When he announced her nomination on April 14, Obama only offered a few skimpy details about Sapiro’s credentials. White House press aide Ben LaBolt declined to respond to a request for more detailed basic biographical information on Sapiro, or how she came to the attention of Obama’s political operatives.
A little digging quickly suggests the answer to the latter question. Sapiro has strong political connections to important figures in the Obama administration, stemming from her most recent experience as an important fundraiser for the Obama presidential campaign. But she is more than a fundraiser, having served in sensitive national security positions during the Clinton administration as a lawyer in the State Department and as a key operative on the National Security Council. That experience — including a stint as a backup to Richard Holbrooke and Jim Steinberg (now deputy secretary of state) in the 1995 Balkan peace negotiations — could be valuable as Sapiro turns her focus to the complex issues associated with international trade negotiations.
Let’s take a closer look.
On April 3, newly sworn-in U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced his new senior staff members. Before taking a closer look at the credentials and backgrounds of the key men and women who will be helping formulate and implement the Obama administration’s international trade policies — including some telling details that the USTR didn’t include in his official press release — first briefly consider the overarching political context.
Talk about the permanent campaign. Kirk’s top team is heavy on political fundraising experience and campaign skills — so heavy in political talent that it looks like a future campaign-staff-in-waiting. Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002. And whether or not Kirk uses his new job as President Obama’s top trade negotiator as a personal political springboard, he and his team would seem to be positioned to advance an Obama reelection campaign in 2012. Last year, John McCain easily beat Obama in Texas, 56%-44%. Next time around, Texas Democrats like Kirk could hope to at least force the Republican opposition to divert money from other key battleground states to Texas — a red state rich in Electoral College votes that, the Democrats would hope, the Republicans could not afford to take for granted. And of course, the USTR can pick trade fights that will also play well in other politically important states (please forgive a crusty old reporter’s cynicism that would suggest such an agenda).
If Kirk is looking for a model on how a U.S. trade representative can use the office for maximum political advantage for a sitting president, Mickey Kantor showed how it can be done. Kantor played a lead role in the Clinton-Gore 1992 presidential campaign, and was then tapped by President Bill Clinton as his first U.S. trade negotiator. The politically astute USTR Kantor skillfully turned the resentments that the Detroit auto lobby had concerning its Japanese competition into a major political issue, threatening to slap 100% tariffs on Japanese autos. It was quite a fight — or at least, the appearance of quite a fight. By the time Kantor was done, Clinton was positioned to run for reelection in 1996 as a president who had the gumption to stand up to the “unfair” foreigners. It was a classic smoke-and-mirrors act, but one that worked politically. A grateful Clinton then promoted Kantor to be his next secretary of commerce.
While we wait for Kirk’s record to unfold, here’s the rundown of the new deputy U.S. trade cops who will play key roles in helping him set that record.