The free-trade consensus of the previous two decades has frayed under President Obama, and while he has pushed through some low-level agreements, he has fallen far short of his predecessors on this key driver of the nation’s economy, and analysts say the U.S. is lagging behind many of its chief competitors.
Last fall, Mr. Obama pushed through Congress and signed trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, but the agreements were negotiated primarily under President George W. Bush, and scholars give Mr. Bush credit for them.
Mr. Obama’s chief accomplishment is continuing talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — entering a 14th round of negotiations — which would be historic when, or if, it is completed. But the deal is moving slowly, and Mr. Obama’s continued participation has provoked concern among many of his staunchest Democratic allies in Congress and labor unions.
To find real breakthroughs on trade, some analysts say, the nation simply needs a new president.
“The U.S. isn’t going to make progress on trade until we get another president. I don’t know if Mitt Romney is the answer, but Obama clearly is not,” said Peter Morici, a professor and international trade scholar at the University of Maryland.
Mr. Obama’s lackluster record on trade, an increasing target of the Romney campaign, stands in stark contrast to those of his predecessors.
Mr. Bush signed free-trade agreements with more than a dozen countries, including Australia, Peru, Singapore and Bahrain. President Clinton’s first term included the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, the establishment of permanent normal trade relations with China and the birth of the World Trade Organization.
Obama vs. Romney
Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, increasingly has turned to trade as an attack line against Mr. Obama.
While the Obama administration has failed to achieve any new deals, he says, the rest of the world is moving full steam ahead. Since 2007, the European Union has finalized or negotiated more than 20 deals. China has signed or negotiated nearly 20.
Even the few trade success stories of the Obama administration were results of political motivation, said Dan Ikenson, director of the Cato Institute’s Steifel Center for Trade Policy Studies. Mr. Ikenson said it was one of the few areas where the president could try to move to the political middle after the 2010 congressional elections.
“The three agreements he got signed were on the shelf during his first couple of years. But after the shellacking he took in the midterm elections, he said, ‘What does business want?’” Mr. Ikenson said.
Administration officials dispute that characterization, pointing to the fact that, despite political opposition from within his own party, Mr. Obama guided the three deals past the finish line. Indeed, the president had to face down fierce criticism from some top Democrats, but made some alterations to the agreements and won overwhelming approval from Congress — including from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Tuesday that the administration also is exploring trade deals with the European Union and continuing negotiations with other countries in the World Trade Organization.