Trade Agreements: Mixed Messages from the Obama Administration

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Posted: Nov 14, 2009 3:22 PM
I woke up this morning to find this AP story which describes President Obama's support for making free-trade pacts within the Asian trade arena:

President Barack Obama raised hopes for creating an Asia-Pacific free-trade region by announcing Saturday that the U.S. would seek to join a smaller group seen as a precursor to a broader Pacific Rim agreement.

News that the U.S. would participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, joining Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei, was announced in Tokyo and Singapore, drawing applause at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

I'll admit, I was pleasantly surprised.  Personally, I'm a big believer in free trade as it breaks down barriers and helps American companies and workers compete more effectively in the global marketplace.  But, like many others, I was disappointed when President Bush signed trade agreements with numerous countries years ago--like Chile, South Korea, Panama, Colombia, etc.--the Democrat-controlled Congress refused to approve them. 

Secondly, this news represents a mixed-signal from within the administration itself as just yesterday, Obama's commerce secretary said,  "Trade agreements are going to have to wait."

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Trade agreements  with South Korea, Colombia and Panama won't be put before Congress until it grapples first with President Barack Obama's pressing legislative goals, the U.S. commerce secretary said Friday.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Obama has an ambitious high-priority legislative agenda focusing on health care, financial regulation and alternative energy.

"Trade agreements are going to have to wait," he said at a luncheon hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. "Right now, the administration is focused on a very aggressive and very tight legislative agenda."

In addition, the AP reported on Friday:

The lack of progress on a trade agreement likely will be a sore point during Obama's stop in Seoul next week during an eight-day trip to Asia that began Thursday in Japan and will also take him to Singapore and China.

South Korea and the U.S. did $84.8 billion in bilateral trade in 2008, making Washington South Korea's fourth-biggest trading partner after China, the European Union and Japan. The 27-nation EU is the largest foreign investor in South Korea, with $98.4 billion in trade last year.

In 2007, South Korea and the U.S. signed a deal to slash tariffs and other barriers to trade. However, the deal has yet to be ratified by U.S. lawmakers amid concerns about South Korea's automobile market.

This trade agreement with South Korea would help America's struggling economy.  According to the US Chamber of Commerce, the pending agreement with Korea, if approved, "will boost U.S. exports to and investment in Korea—generating new jobs and economic growth in the United States."

But helping the ailing economy by opening new opportunities for businesses and workers is not the top priority agenda of the Obama administration, despite the nation's rising level of unemployment.  Instead of these new opportunities for trade that would encourage economic growth, Obama's commerce secretary declared, "Healthcare costs are the absolute No. 1 priority of the administration."