This nice little plan all came tumbling down when the South Koreans would not cooperate.
The president's expensive 10-day caravan to Asia's biggest democracies was intended to showcase that American power still matters in the Pacific. To underline it, no goal was presented as more important than getting the long-stalled trade pact with South Korea out the door by November, a deadline President Obama grandly announced to all the world last June.But Obama had to demonstrate to the unions that he could get more for them than the Bush administration had.
Passage would show American economic might in a region where China is rapidly gaining trade and strategic influence. It would also boost the U.S. economy in a way not seen since 1993, when Nafta, about the same size as the Korean deal, was signed.
Tariffs would be dropped on 95% of American goods entering Korea's huge, wealthy market, adding $40 billion to U.S. GDP and, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimate, 250,000 jobs.
But there was no good news. Talks between the Koreans and the U.S. went on for weeks, with a final all-night marathon session Wednesday. The best the president and his Korean counterpart could come up with was that they'd need more time for talks.
"We are crossing all the t's, dotting all the i's," the president said.
Good luck with that. The peak moment of U.S. presidential influence came and went with that face-to-face meeting in Seoul. Now the chances for passage are more remote than ever.
In Asia, there's a phrase for this kind of fiasco: lost face.
The real issue is there didn't need to be any talks at all. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement was signed and sealed in 2007. The Koreans think a deal is a deal and don't want to renegotiate. Really, all Obama has to do is submit it to Congress for a vote.
Unfortunately, Obama blasted Korean and other free-trade deals as "bad trade pacts" during his 2008 presidential run. As a result, he now seems desperate to save face by "tweaking" this treaty with changes to previously negotiated deals on autos and beef, as if professional U.S. trade negotiators didn't get the best deal they could back then. They did. This is just a political kabuki show.Since the Democrats spent the past two and a half years blocking the ratification of the agreement that Bush's administration had negotiated, other regions like Europe, Canada, and China, are knocking at South Korea's door and shoving Obama out of the way. Democratic politics blocked a perfectly fine treaty that would have created jobs here because the unions weren't happy with more free trade. Now when Obama wants a foreign policy victory, he can't even deliver a victory that Bush had already negotiated. Traditionally, the big guy isn't brought in until the agreement is already finished so that he can grab the spotlight and the victory. But no, Obama had to be the one to negotiate the final agreement. And the South Koreans just refused to play their assigned role in Obama's glory play. Do you think that the Asian leaders he has been meeting with don't notice the loss of face he just suffered?
The arguments behind these changes — pushed by carmakers and protectionist unions like the AFL-CIO to halt the pact until they get what they want — are not good.
They say they're shut out, but American car companies such as GM have a large presence in Korea through acquisitions, and others like Ford can get market share this way too. The Koreans have some protectionist tendencies, but any disappointing aspects of the pact should not hold up the entire deal, which would give made-in-America goods far easier entry into that rich, fast-growing market.