President Barack Obama is right on free trade, but Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid is stopping progress. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
President Barack Obamaís problems with Congress are usually rooted in Republican House Speaker John Boehner. But in pressing his trade agenda, the presidentís primary opposition is coming from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The Nevada Democrat advised the White House this week ďnot to push this right now,Ē referring to fast track authority to sign two free trade deals. Reid is threatening bottle up the pacts that would further stimulate economic relationships among the United Statesí major trading partners.
Obama showed courage in touting the pending agreements in his recent State of the Union address, despite opposition from the labor unions Democrats need in the fall election. To get them approved, heíll have to champion the deals to Congress and get by Reidís roadblock.
What the president wants is authority to sign agreements to break down lingering barriers with Canada, Mexico and 10 Asian Pacific countries, and with the European Union.
He rightly believes that easing trade restrictions would boost the export of U.S. goods and services, creating jobs in this country and boosting economic growth. These pacts are particularly targeted toward small and mid-size businesses.
With the recovery still sluggish, measures that increase the demand for American products should be a top priority. And while Obama sees it that way, many of his fellow Democrats are bowing to the protectionist demands of labor.
Other opponents, including Detroitís automakers, want stronger safeguards against currency manipulation and unequal tariffs by our trading partners ó especially Japan. The concerns can and should be addressed. But the important thing is to make trade as free as possible.
While opening trade routes can cause selective turmoil in some industries, the overall outcome will be a net gain in employment and economic output. Thatís been the experience of the North American Trade Agreement, which was signed by President Bill Clinton.
Like Obama, Clinton faced determined opposition from his own party. But he spent his political capital getting NAFTA passed, and became its biggest champion.
Obama will have to follow that example if he hopes to get these two trade deals done.
He will need a coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Labor will likely never sign on to the merits of free trade, but the president can start his push by easing the concerns of automakers and others that the pacts will give some countries, particularly Japan, an unfair advantage.
Michigan is in line to especially benefit from the Asian-Pacific pact. It currently has free trade agreements with six of the 11 countries, exporting $37.2 billion in goods to them annually. Thatís roughly 65 percent of the stateís total exports.
A president has very few tools at his disposal to stimulate the economy. Trade agreements are one, and they can be very effective.
Obama should have the chance to make his case to Congress for these two worthwhile trade pacts. Harry Reid should not stand in his way.