U.S. trade rep faces tough sell

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 10:03 PM

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk considers himself a dealmaker at heart, but he now faces the question: Can you really cut deals if neither side of a negotiation will compromise?

That's the dilemma he faced during recent talks on a proposed Korea-U.S. free-trade agreement when discussions that many thought were on track foundered over largely domestic political concerns. Despite a relatively short list of disagreements and with billions of dollars in potential trade on the table, President Obama and South Korean leader Lee Myung-bak were unwilling to make the trade-offs that would have allowed the deal to move forward but angered constituencies at home.

It reflects, too, the broader challenge Kirk faces in selling free trade at a time of sustained high unemployment and concern that past deals have shipped U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas without delivering the benefits promised by better access to foreign markets.

Kirk, who spends as much of his time lobbying U.S. communities over the advantages of trade as he does bargaining with foreign officials, said his reception is often that of a "three-headed monster" viewed with suspicion and disbelief.

But he also insists that despite a slow start, the administration's trade agenda will gain momentum. The failure to finish the Korea deal during the meeting between the presidents in Seoul, he said, is not a final verdict.

"The bottom line is that you take the time to get it right . . . to get a market-moving, economically compelling, job-creating package that meets all the objectives," Kirk said in an interview after the Korea-U.S. talks adjourned. "The president is unequivocal. . . . The reality is that many of the Southeast Asian economies transformed themselves because they were able to produce products that they have been able to sell to Americans because there was no barrier to entry. We believe it is only fair that American farmers and ranchers and exporters should have access to these growing economies."

Neither Korean nor U.S. officials have explained their bargaining position in detail. But in remarks in Seoul, Obama made clear that the politics of the deal weighed on the discussions. The talks revolved around a handful of issues, including better access to the Korean market for U.S. automakers and beef exporters, but the terms were not adequate to make the president confident that he could push the deal through Congress.

Obama said in Korea that he wants the talks to continue and produce an agreement soon, perhaps in a matter of weeks.

Some of the chief skeptics met with the president recently and said the deal would face a difficult road in Congress without major changes.

"The majority of the American people do not feel trade deals have been to the benefit of American workers or the American economy," said Rep. Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine), who has sponsored legislation what would give Congress a greater role in trade deals and force a renegotiation of existing ones.

The outcome in Seoul was a blow for Kirk, 56, a lawyer and former mayor of Dallas. As the U.S.'s chief trade ambassador, he plays a key role in the administration's efforts to double American exports, yet he also faces an uphill fight in pushing any new trade agenda forward.

The broader world trade discussions known as the Doha Round have been stalled for years; the eight-nation Transpacific Partnership has been moving slowly, mired in technical disputes despite Obama's hope for it to become a "gold standard" template for other agreements. The Korea-U.S. agreement, indeed, was seen as ripe for progress - a deal that the president elevated to top priority, to Kirk's surprise, as something that was both likely to get done and that might provide momentum for other trade talks.

Kirk still thinks he can sell it.

"The politics of trade in America have always been tough," he said. "If you ask people, 'Should we search for a way to sell more of what we make and grow and create and put people to work?' most Americans would say, 'Let's get going.'

"We are proud of being the largest consumer economy, but that ability is directly correlated to having a good income."

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