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On Free Trade, Was Obama Looking for a Way Out?

Last week, I wrote about a particular bind President Obama had gotten himself into over his expansion of executive authority. Because he had established such a robust record of flouting duly-passed legislation and usurping congressional authority, not even Democrats in Congress trusted him to follow the law. This wasn’t a problem on many issues, because the president and Democrats in Congress agree on so much and congressional Democrats made it clear they believe the ends always justify the means when it comes to progressive rule making.

But it would be a problem on trade, because there the president wanted what’s known as fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that Congress could not amend. Democrats are generally opposed to trade despite the broad consensus on its economic benefits, so they wouldn’t easily fork over their authority to the president. Despite Obama’s plea in the State of the Union for the trade authority, Harry Reid immediately confirmed that no, Democrats wouldn’t give Obama free rein on trade. But it’s unclear just how much of a rebuke to the president this really is.

News reports took the basic outlines of the story at face value: Obama wanted trade deals, Reid said no, so this is a blow to the president’s economic agenda. But it’s not so plain. Yesterday Politico reported that Reid went to the White House for a long meeting with the president–and trade didn’t even come up:

The majority leader returned to the Capitol about 75 minutes after a scheduled 2:30 p.m. meeting with the president and told reporters his opposition to fast-tracking trade pacts through Congress was not broached during his huddle with Obama.

“We’re on the same page with everything,” Reid said, rejecting a reporter’s question on whether the Democratic leader is in Obama’s “doghouse” after voicing disapproval of the trade legislation.

Asked whether they discussed trade, Reid curtly replied “no.”

So just how important does the president consider free trade–an economic boon but which unions don’t love–to his agenda if he won’t even broach the subject with Reid? A clue can probably be found in past coverage of Obama administration trade deals, which tend to embrace the same contradictions.

Take, for example, this October 2011 Washington Post story on the passage of free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama. The headline is: “Obama gets win as Congress passes free-trade agreements,” and the story tells us that “The South Korea deal has the potential to create as many as 280,000 American jobs” and is “widely hailed as the most consequential trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified in 1994.”

But later on in the story we get some more information about why the deals were signed nearly three years into Obama’s term:

The pacts were first negotiated under President George W. Bush but were updated by Obama to include more guarantees for labor and human rights and environmental protections. The pacts were recently held up in a dispute between Obama and congressional Republicans over renewing the worker assistance program.

During Obama’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he tended to underscore the risks that free trade posed for U.S. workers and the environment rather than potential benefits.

So Obama really isn’t very high on free trade and campaigned against it. George W. Bush did the work of putting together the deals and the Democrats stalled it for years, finally conceding when Obama realized he was “facing a tough bid for reelection with unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent.”

Obama is, in fact, no fan of free trade. But the benefits are well known across the board. So a perfect situation for Obama is to have complete authority over the deals so he can better choose who to protect and which companies and industries to favor without getting a bipartisan deal in Congress that would be more sensible and economically beneficial but less to Obama’s liking.

This is what he’s asking for now, and what he was denied. He doesn’t seem too upset about it, probably because he isn’t. It’s possible that the president has decided that now, unlike with numerous controversial bills, he’s just going to let Harry Reid run the show. But that would be a change of pace for a president who thinks Congress is mostly cosmetic, a passé throwback to a time before the Lightbringer arrived.

And it’s unlikely. If Obama really wanted free trade he would press on, involving Congress grudgingly but elevating free trade over his own absolute power. It’s possible, then, that when Obama doesn’t treat free trade as a priority for him it’s because it isn’t.

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