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Stalling On Trade

August 13, 2009

IBD       7 Aug 09

Trade: The White House seems to grasp the value of free trade — at least in those rare times the topic’s even brought up. Too bad that free-trade stance has been undercut by Washington stalling on new deals.

That’s evident from a letter sent Wednesday by six business groups, including the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, among others.

In their note, they urged President Obama to “make the case that international economic engagement and . . . efforts to eliminate market barriers . . . are more important than ever to the revitalization of America’s economy.”

With 9.5% unemployment and plunging poll ratings, you’d think that would be a no-brainer for the president. Unfortunately, President Obama has been promising that speech in support of free trade for months and has still done nothing.

His excuse is always that there’s something more important on the table that must be addressed first. The stimulus package, card check legislation, cap-and-trade laws and now health care reform have all been used to shut out free trade. It’s getting old.

Six months into his administration, Obama’s initiatives are running into trouble. The top reason is the weak economy. Opening huge markets for American companies will help reverse that.

The Obama administration has three treaties on the table with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Free trade with those fast-growing nations could help kick-start U.S. economic growth if they could just be put to a vote in Congress.

Negotiated by the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, Obama has the power to communicate that these are not mere political decrees put forth by the Bush administration, but legal agreements executed by the same trade experts who now work for him.

What’s more, action has already been taken to placate workers who erroneously believe that free trade kills jobs. Congress has handed out hundreds of millions of dollars for worker retraining for job losses due to overseas competition, special help that may in itself encourage workers to blame foreigners for lost jobs. Even so, it’s yet another reason for Obama to boost free trade.

The big reason, though, is what it can do both for the Obama presidency and the country. Exports create jobs, and none more than those with free-trade partners. How? Free-trade accords not only cut tariffs but provide legal protections to U.S. companies abroad.

It means lots of buying from abroad. The U.S. has a $21 billion surplus with free-trade allies, another easy point for Obama to make.

The Obama administration knows all this. We know they know it. Now it’s time to act, and get this economy moving again.

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