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May 4, 2010 at 3:22 PM

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U.S. Trade Representative visits Seattle

Posted by Bruce Ramsey

Ron Kirk, the United States Trade Representative, is President Obama's head of policy on foreign trade. He is responsible for negotiating trade agreements like NAFTA and handling trade disputes. He replaced Susan Schwab, a Bush appointee. I have met them both. My memory of Schwab--a few years old now--is that she was more the assertive lawyer, the detail person. Kirk seems more laid back, and less specific. Sometimes intentionally vague. More like a politician, which he was: he was mayor of Dallas.

Recall that Obama was not elected as the pro-trade candidate. In the campaign, in Ohio, he famously called for renegotiating NAFTA or getting out. We asked Kirk about that. He dodged the question of what his boss had said on the campaign trail--and anyway, nobody is talking about dismantling NAFTA or even changing it very much. Well, then what of the unratified trade agreement the Bush Administration negotiated with South Korea? Would this administration renegotiate that?

"We are not going to renegotiate," he said. But he said the imbalance in the trade in cars make the South Korean agreement hard to sell in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.

He reminded us that he came from a pro-trade state. When he comes here, he said, he is met by our Democratic governor, our two Democratic senators, and other political and business leaders, and he feels welcome. "When I'm east of the Mississippi, people think I'm a two-headed monster," he quipped. He said he loves coming here. "For every five trips to Michigan and Illinois I ought to earn one trip to Seattle."

He knows what to say--and what not to say. When I asked him about federal subsidies to cotton growers, and the problems they pose for U.S. trade policy, he said that commenting about farm subsidies is "not my place to do." His biggest complaint about China is a new policy called "indigenous innovation," which sounded something like their equivalent of Buy American. He talked a lot about "playing by the rules," and reminded us several times that there is no consensus in the electorate on going forward with further trade liberalization.

It's hard to judge a person in one meeting. But my quick impression is that Kirk is a peacemaker, not a fighter. If he ends up getting in the news over a fight with some other country, whicn seems unlikely, it will be because the other side wanted it.

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