By John Nichols
Barack Obama's decision to nominate former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk to serve as the next U.S. Trade Representative is deeply unsettling for those who hoped the president-elect would chart a new course with regard to trade policy.
Kirk's record is that of a free-trade absolutist who has embraced and defended the discredited positions of President Bush and former President Bill Clinton even as Americans have signaled their desire for policies that protect the interests of workers, farmers, communities and the environment in the U.S. and abroad.
Even more unsettling than the selection of Kirk is the abandonment by Obama of the candidacy of California Congressman Xavier Becerra to serve as his point-person on trade.
Becerra, one of the most consistently progressive members of the House, had emerged as the front-runner for the trade representative job, and the prospect that he would get it had excited fair trade advocates in the U.S. and abroad.
The congressman had backed some trade deals in the past, but in recent years he had emerged as a savvy critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the "Fast-Track" model for negotiating new trade deals. In particular, he had been outspoken with regard to the need to include guarantees of protection for union organizers in new agreements with countries such as Colombia.
Becerra's commitment to human rights and labor rights troubled business interests, and they made their concerns known to the Obama camp. The response was a mixed signal that seemed to suggest Becerra was the president-elect's favorite for the position but that he would be constrained by an economic team that includes a number of free traders.
Becerra heard that message loud and clear and announced last week that he had decided to remain in the House, where he is a popular member who some believe will ultimately succeed fellow California Democrat Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.
That shifted the focus to Kirk.
Needless to say, Obama's nomination of a Texan with a pro-free trade record has been well received by those who favor corporate-friendly trade policies.
But fair-trade advocates are justifiably concerned.
Maine Congressman Mike Michaud, a co-founder of the House Trade Working Group, was remarkably blunt in his assessment of the president-elect's decision:
The 2008 election created an historic opportunity to reform our country's failed, damaging trade policies. The public expects the Obama administration and Congress to deliver on the change we promised. President-elect Obama campaigned to change the trade agreements and policies that have cost millions of American jobs, suppressed wages, crippled industries across our nation, and flooded America with unsafe imports. President-elect Obama's commitments to review existing trade agreements and to oppose more of the same failed trade policies, including Bush's Colombia Free Trade Agreement, was a welcome change in direction. It is critical that the next USTR deliver on the changes promised by President-elect Obama so that we can work together to move forward with a fair trade agenda.
I am deeply concerned about the choice of Ron Kirk because his past trade policy positions do not reflect the views of most Americans. They also do not reflect the reform agenda that President Obama has pledged to an American public clamoring for a new direction on trade. An examination of his track record shows that Mr. Kirk has touted NAFTA as a success, called for its expansion and supported PNTR with China - policies that have facilitated the demise of many of our domestic manufacturers and accompanied the loss of four million U.S. manufacturing jobs. In contrast, Mr. Kirk's vocal opposition to Fast Track during his 2002 U.S. Senate race is in synch with Congress' views and President-elect Obama's commitment to replace that Nixon-era negotiating and approval system with one that provides Congress a greater role to ensure trade pacts benefit most Americans.
While some of Mr. Kirk's past trade positions do not reflect President-elect Obama's promise to the American public that our nation's approach to trade will be different than that of the current administration, the major shifts in Congress' composition and President-elect Obama's trade reform pledges set the context moving forward. With trade reform playing a historic role in the 2006 and 2008 congressional election, 71 Representatives and Senators who campaigned on major trade reform have replaced those who had supported NAFTA, China PNTR and other past failed policies.
Given his previous trade policy positions, considerable scrutiny will accompany high expectations that Mr. Kirk will deliver on President-elect Obama's commitments to promote a new American trade agenda that serves the needs of working families, both here and abroad.
Translation: Supporters of a more responsible approach to trade policy will need to keep the pressure on Obama (and his appointees) to keep the president-elect's campaign promise to negotiate agreements that respect the rights of workers, that keep small farmers on the land, that preserve the environment and that forge an economic future that serves Main Street rather than Wall Street.