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Tony Fratto: Our Anti-Trade President

Monday, 14 Sep 2009 | 9:28 AM ET
President Barack Obama
Photo by: Pete Souza
President Barack Obama

Earlier this year, following the London Summit, President Obama hailed the commitment from the leaders of G-20 nations not to engage in trade protectionism in the face of a faltering global economy.

That was then.

It will be interesting to hear the President address trade during the Pittsburgh G-20 Summitlater this month in the wake of his decision to engage in trade protectionism in a case involving Chinese tire imports to the United States. It will be even more interesting to hear the reactions of other leaders -- especially the Chinese.

You might have missed this news of President Obama's anti-trade announcement, and you would be forgiven for that. Although a decision wasn't required for another week, the White House released the President's statement at 9:15pm on Friday night - a transparently cynical move, judging correctly that it would escape broader attention over the weekend.

I would call the decision "shameless", but clearly the White House had enough shame to try to bury the news in the dark of night.

The case itself is telling in that neither U.S. tire manufacturers nor distributors supported the filing. Rather, it was brought by unions, and steel producers whose products go into the manufacture of tires.

But in a way, the specific merits of the case are irrelevant. What is far more damaging is the continued deterioration of America's traditional leadership role in opening markets and expanding trade.

President Bush also made a determination to impose trade protections on steel in its first term. Although that decision was met with outrage from our trading partners and possibly weakened our ability to lead on trade, the Bush Administration was committed to trade expansion and never abandoned its leadership role.

Unlike the Obama Administration, the Bush Administration was instead actively engaged in unprecedented efforts to liberalize trade. Not only was it at the same time seeking trade promotion authority from Congress, it was also proposing a hemisphere-wide Free Trade of the Americas Agreement, a new global trade agreement (the "Doha Round"), and had embarked on multiple bilateral free trade agreements.

On CNBC.com Now:

Indeed, by the end of President Bush's term, eleven new bilateral FTAs were successfully negotiated.

By contrast, nine months into his presidency, Obama is demonstrating neglect - if not outright hostility - to trade expansion. The President has signaled no appetite for seeking trade promotion authority from Congress. The Colombia, Panama, and South Korea FTAs awaiting congressional action languish and gather dust. Trade ministers from around the world continue to wait for the White House's intentions on Doha. And now, the administration has engaged in the very act of brazen, union-satisfying trade protectionism it previously cautioned other nations to resist.

The United States is the world's greatest exporter of goods and services, and has earned that position because of the unbroken bipartisan commitment to trade by American presidents since the disaster of the depression-inducing Smoot-Hawley tariffs. President Obama's willingness to forsake that legacy - and the economic benefits that come with it - to maintain the affections of organized labor is a mistake.

  • China Plans Anti-Dumping Probe of US Autos, Chicken

Unless President Obama reverses course, he will be remembered as the president who "lost" trade for America, and the only anti-trade president of modern times.

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Tony Fratto is a CNBC on-air contributor and most recently served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary for the Bush Administration.

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