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Will Political Capital Be Spent on Trade?

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Ernie Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, Southeast Asia Program, CSIS

As President Obama left Seoul last month without a U.S.-Korea trade agreement (KORUS) in hand, a proverbial sigh could be heard emanating from leaders of Asian countries. They share an interest with the majority of Americans – both want to see the U.S. economy strong again. Revitalizing trade is a vital factor in making that goal a reality. Energizing trade with Asia is of particular interest, given that the Asia Pacific accounts for nearly two thirds of world trade, and Asia is by far the fastest growing and most dynamic economic region on the planet.

“Chin up,” was the word after the Korea visit, “the President gets it.” He was crystal clear at APEC in Yokohama. He understood – trade is vital to a sustained U.S. recovery, and Asia is important. “In the 21st century, the security and prosperity of the American people is linked to the security and prosperity of Asia,” he said. Based on those signals, expectant Asian leaders and job-hungry Americans watched for the return to Washington, D.C. to see how and when the President would invest political capital in trade. Trade seemed to be an issue that the White House and congressional Republicans could agree to work on in the 112th Congress.

That is why there was real concern yesterday after rampant Congressional Republican leaders and less buoyant Democratic colleagues left their meeting with President Obama in Roosevelt Room and revealed that trade was not among the top issues discussed at the meeting. Pressing issues like taxes, the deficit, START and other unarguable priorities were addressed, but not trade. This raises real concern among American partners in Asia.

It is true that the KORUS is still not done, but both governments are working on it – USTR Ron Kirk is locked up today and tomorrow in Columbia, Maryland with his Korean counterpart, Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon. Some would argue, why talk trade without a deal on the table? They might also argue that given the limited scope for addressing issues during the lame duck session, triage dictates that trade is not among the top three issues. Those points are granted.

The purpose of this note is to remind policy makers on the Hill and in the Administration that moving ahead on trade is fundamental not only to U.S. foreign policy in Asia, but to our economic recovery and future prosperity at home. Political realities dictate that the opportunity to deal with trade in a bipartisan fashion will be fleeting, as it now seems to be relegated to next year.

Getting a strong KORUS negotiated and approved in Congress is the stepping stone to moving on with the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and leading again on trade in Asia. It is fundamental to American credibility when the president hosts APEC in Honolulu next November.

Spending political capital means the Communicator-in-Chief of the United States himself has to bring the message of the importance of trade to the American people. Now is the time to invest. This country’s future depends on it.

White House photo in the public domain.

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  1. December 3, 2010 at 9:33 PM

    President Obama announced a deal on KORUS this evening at 7 PM. Now on to Congressional approval.

  1. December 3, 2010 at 4:30 AM
  2. December 7, 2010 at 9:34 AM

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