President Barack Obama returned from Asia yesterday, and the headlines greeting him home are not kind. Obamas economic view is rejected on world stage, reads The New York Times; Obama, weakened after midterms, reveals limited leverage in failed S. Korea deal, says The Washington Post; and ABC News declares, President Obama Falls Short on G-20 Goals: Failure to Deliver on Key Trade Goals Reveals Limits of American Influence. These headlines are only half-right: Yes, President Obama did fail to deliver on his agenda in Asia, but the culprit is not declining American influence. The problem is a losing agenda set by the President himself.
Lets start with the South KoreaU.S. free trade agreement (KORUS). Typical among media outlets, The Washington Post referred to KORUS as the nearly complete South Korea deal, which Obama inherited from the George W. Bush administration. This is just plain false. KORUS was completed and signed three years ago. All the agreement needs is leadership from President Obama to get it approved in the Senate. But free trade is not a priority of President Obama. Instead, he unilaterally reopened negotiations on two items: beef and autos.
Yes, South Korea did temporarily close its market to U.S. beef after a mad cow scare, American beef has been back in South Korea for two years, and sales are rapidly climbing. The major U.S. beef exporter groups have publicly declared they are satisfied with the existing KORUS agreement, but President Obama is demanding more changes anyway.
While there is pressure from domestic automakers for more concessions from South Korea, their demands keep changing. In 2007, U.S. automakers were demanding that South Korea adopt stricter environmental standards on their cars. But now, three years later, President Obama is demanding the opposite: that U.S. cars be exempt from Koreas more stringent emissions standards. The only consistent principle here is hostility to free trade.
And hostility to trade will cost an already ailing U.S. economy. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that U.S. exports would increase $1011 billion annually if KORUS passed, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that KORUS would lead to an increase of 250,000 jobs. Meanwhile, failure to enact the agreement would lead to a loss of $35 billion in exports and 345,000 jobs.
After he failed to get a new deal with South Korea on trade, President Obama then failed to get the G-20 to take any action limiting trade imbalances. Again, policy was the problem: Efforts to limit global imbalances run headlong into huge American budget deficits and extremely loose money that are explicitly intended to increase American demand, which is the single biggest factor in imbalances in the first place.
Heritage Foundation analyst Bruce Klingner comments: Obamas decision to allow the talks to collapseand make no mistake, the decision was made at the presidential levelwas a colossal blunder. It reflects serious shortcomings in his strategic thinking since it will have dramatic repercussions for U.S. foreign policy. Not only does it show the emperor has no clothes when claiming he favors free trade, but unless he can get this back in the very quick order he referenced in Seoul, the U.S. will lose all credibility in pushing other trade issues, such as the nine-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Walking away from the KORUS will hurt U.S. economic recovery, strain relations with a key U.S. ally, and undermine American trade objectivesa true trifecta of failure.