After paying far too much heed to the Democratic Party’s protectionist wing, President Obama has become a born-again believer in the benefits of free trade. Or has he? As with so many other issues, he can’t help equivocating. Thus, as the Wall Street Journal reports, he has endorsed free trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama but he is refusing to send them to Congress for ratification until Republicans agree to spend roughly $1 billion annually for a Trade Adjustment Assistance program designed to help workers who suffer as a result of these deals. As if we really need more deficit spending.
All of these trade deals have already been languishing far too long—the Korea and Panama deals were signed in 2007, the Colombia one in 2006. It is hard to see any substantive reason to wait any longer. The delay is pure pandering to the labor unions, which are (wrongly) scared about the costs of free trade. In point of fact, these free-trade agreements would be of great benefit to the U.S. economy by lifting foreign trade barriers; the South Korea pact alone is estimated to be worth $11 billion a year in new U.S. exports. The national security benefits cannot be underestimated either: these treaties would bind the U.S. more closely to key allies in Latin America and Asia.
If there is any major issue in Washington where the pros and cons are not remotely close, it is free trade—which is why Republican and Democratic presidents alike have consistently backed policies to lift tariffs since World War II. The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, scored a particularly notable victory in this regard with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was far more controversial than any of the trade deals on the table today. The least Obama can do is usher through these deals negotiated by the Bush administration, which matter so much to our key allies—and to our economy.