President John F. Kennedy once noted, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” But in the case of free trade, the opposite is true. It’s been a great success as a policy, but one neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden is willing to claim ownership.
Trump is an outspoken protectionist, regarding imports as bad and domestic production as good. As part of his “America First” agenda, he made a grand promise to “end our chronic trade deficits.” (In fact, they’ve gotten bigger.) He slapped tariffs on China, South Korea, the European Union, Mexico, India and more. He sees every dollar spent on imported products as a dollar lit on fire.
Biden is in a perfect position to challenge Trump’s primitive superstitions about trade. He served under Barack Obama, who pursued major free trade agreements with 11 Pacific Rim countries (not including China) and with the EU. Obama also retreated from his campaign pledge to renegotiate NAFTA, and ultimately declared that “trade has helped our economy much more than it has hurt.”
Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers published a report concluding — as nearly all economists do — that reducing trade barriers raises living standards here and abroad, boosts productivity, fosters innovation and expands employment in high-paying sectors.
“Few if any examples can be found of nations protecting their way to prosperity, but many examples can be found of countries prospering as they embraced free markets,” Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Euijin Jung of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote recently.
As vice president, Biden lobbied members of Congress to approve the TPP, but last year, he suddenly saw everything in a new light. “I would not rejoin the TPP as it was initially put forward,” he said, aligning himself not with Obama but with — let me see — Trump.
He’s not the first Democratic nominee to deny parenthood: Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state called the accord the “gold standard in trade agreements,” repudiated it when she ran for president.
In the Democratic presidential primaries this year, free trade was mostly treated with disdain. Bernie Sanders bashed Biden for his previous support of TPP, and Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker — not to mention Kamala Harris — likewise opposed it.
Biden does not seem to have noticed that they lost and he won — getting nearly twice as many votes in the primaries as Sanders, while trouncing Warren even in her home state of Massachusetts. His past advocacy of free trade deals didn’t hurt him at all with voters.
More likely, it helped.
There’s reason to think so. A February Gallup Poll found that 79% of Americans see foreign trade as “an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports” — up from 46% in 2012. The share of people who see such transactions as a “threat to the economy” has plunged from 46% to 18%.
Biden’s own party faithful are even more positive about trade, with 82% of Democrats taking that view. But Biden is also at risk of turning off non-Democrats: 78% of Republicans and 76% of independents are pro-trade.
If Trump thinks the issue is good for him, he might want to reconsider. This issue is another confirmation that everything he touches turns to lead. The biggest jump in public support for expanded trade has been in the past four years. The more he tries to block international commerce, the better it looks.
Yet Biden is passing up the opportunity to capitalize on the trend. He seems to be captive to the anti-trade faction of his party, which is not at all representative of Democrats or the electorate.
There are three apparent explanations for Biden’s strange stance. First, he may figure that anyone who strongly favors free trade will vote against Trump regardless. Second, Biden fears alienating white working-class voters, who helped deliver Trump’s narrow victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Most important, however, is a phenomenon long noted by economists: The benefits of protection are concentrated and visible, while the costs are neither. If Trump saves (or claims to save) a factory by shutting out imports, the workers there will pay close attention, but most other people won’t notice the negative effects.
In the past, presidents generally understood that while there could be political risks in foster free trade, the economic payoff was too big to pass up. Whoever wins this election, those days may be gone.