The main themes of President Barack Obama’s international-trade strategy for the November 6 presidential election are now fully established. It’s all about the 21st Century, where the buzzwords are American jobs, U.S. exports, and more American jobs. He doesn’t want America known for “buying stuff from other nations,” Obama told representatives from a dozen-plus corporate luminaries including Ford Motor Co. and Intel Corp. who assembled in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 11. “I want us to be known for making and selling products all over the world stamped with three proud words: ‘Made in America.'”

If economists would immediately retort that the president’s language was the stuff of 17th and 18th century mercantilism, practicing politicians could shoot back that hey, campaigns are not academic seminars. In that vein, the nation’s Politician in Chief furthered his plea for economic nationalism in his Jan. 24 State of the Union address, where he asked Congress to help him give tax breaks aiming at bringing back lost manufacturing jobs to US shores. More broadly, Obama will be vigorously asserting that on his watch, he has succeeded in restoring America’s traditional claims to international economic leadership. Toward that end, he will ignore his lack of focus on what should have been top priority — the truly big-money stakes involved with the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round of multilateral trade liberalization talks, which the White House has helped kill. Instead, Obama will keep touting how he managed to obtain congressional passage of three small-by-comparison trade pacts last year— with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama — that had been negotiated by predecessor George W. Bush, but had become trapped in Washington’s gridlock. Obama has also positioned himself as an an advocate of government efficiency: a reformer who is fighting for lean-and-efficient bureaucracies, pitted against an entrenched Congress and corporate lobbyists. And looking to a second term in office, Obama will advertise his focus on forging deeper ties with dynamic, forward-looking Asian-Pacific economies in a region which he asserts Bush had neglected (and which conveniently encircles China, a trading partner that the president misses no opportunity to say doesn’t “play by the rules”).

The forward-looking Asia-Pacific part of the Obama campaign strategy was clearly on display before a high-powered audience of Washington insiders who packed a conference room on K Street the morning of Jan. 4 at an event organized by the respected bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. Keynote speaker Michael Froman, the deputy national security adviser for international and economic affairs, smoothly spoke of US leadership in the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. The TPP negotiations are designed to liberalize trade with promising Asia-Pacific countries including Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia and Vietnam, Froman said. After the Obama administration came into office in 2009, the White House had studied the gridlock and “determined that we needed a new, 21st century approach to trade,” Froman said. “When we launched TPP,” the White House top international economic aide added, “we developed entirely new texts that reflected US interests and the competitive realities of the region…we pushed our limits and forced ourselves to try to think a bit outside the box about traditional issues.” US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and his team of trade negotiators, Froman related, “have now led 10 rounds” of TPP negotiations, boasting how in 2010 “we welcomed” emerging tiger-cub economies Malaysia and Vietnam into the trade pact.

But a close examination of what has really happened on the Obama watch strongly suggests that the White House claims to economic leadership in the TPP negotiations should not necessarily be taken at face value. For openers, the United States isn’t even a member of the trade pact. Moreover, the issues that are at the core of the White House negotiating strategy are straight out of an 18th century fascination with the mercantile world of high tariffs. It’s the same old story: sugar, steel, cotton, clothes, shoes, and a few other coddled farm lobbies. Moreover, even a cursory look at Obama’s proposals to “streamline” what he says are inefficient federal trade agencies reveals an absence of policy prescriptions truly aimed at bringing official US trade policies into line with 21st century economic realities.

Here’s the story, beginning with the White House assertions of enlightened 21st century “leadership” in the Asia-Pacific negotiations. Read the rest of this article »