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Obama's new tune on trade

Candidate Obama opposed new free-trade agreements and wanted to renegotiate NAFTA. A global slump has changed his mind.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2009

U.S. Trade Representative: Ron Kirk, shown here at a press conference at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, has been working 'furiously,' he says, to push a new free-trade agreement through Congress.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP



In the heat of last year's Democratic primary in Ohio, when the party's presidential nomination was in the balance, then-Sen. Barack Obama vilified US trade policy – as practiced by both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He opposed pending free-trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea, and he advocated reopening and renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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Fifteen months later, President Obama is whistling a different trade tune.

Having named Texan and NAFTA advocate Ron Kirk his US trade representative, Obama is pushing for passage in Congress of the Panama trade pact, perhaps this fall. He wants the same for the Colombia and South Korea accords.

And NAFTA? White House aides let it be known around the time of the president's April trip to Mexico that the regional trade agreement would not be renegotiated.

What happened? It's the difference between running for president and formulating policy as president, some trade-policy analysts say. Obama, in tackling a global economic downturn that had worsened as the campaign went on, is coming down on the side of those who see expanded trade as part of a ticket out of the recession.

"You just knew that as president, [Obama] would have to come around to a more centrist view," says David Orden, a trade-policy analyst with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. He laments that the rhetoric during the presidential campaign was "not constructive for the public's understanding of trade issues."

Others say that just as Obama has charted a pragmatic foreign-policy course, he'll take a similar path for trade policy.

"Given what we've seen so far, I'd expect the president to lay out a very pragmatic course for what the US should try to achieve through trade policy and negotiations," says Jeffrey Schott, a trade-policy expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. That means Obama would integrate already-­negotiated trade pacts into a vision for America's economic recovery.

Besides that, Mr. Schott says, "He'll want the American people to understand how trade policy can be part of a strategy to promote economic development in poorer countries."

But these trade watchers also advise Americans to "stay tuned." The administration's trade policy is a work in progress, they say, and will emerge over the coming months through a number of venues:

•As US officials pursue discussions with Panama over how to make that agreement more palatable to Congress.

•With international trade partners on completing the Doha Round of global trade talks.

•Maybe even in global climate talks, where trade and agriculture are seen as key issues in achieving a new accord on limiting greenhouse gases.

•In a major presidential speech laying out "a new framework for trade policy," say administration officials.

"He's trying to strike a balance, something between the free-trade model we've followed until now and an alternative that would reflect new interests like the fair wages needed to create consumers or a new emphasis on local supply and demand," says Mary Tharin, a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington (COHA). "But you have to say that, so far, he's been pretty silent."