President Obama has returned home to face criticism on multiple fronts. The Associated Press reports:
Returning home to some messy politics, President Barack Obama is confronting a battery of challenges, from a spending standoff that threatens to shut down the government to congressional angst over the U.S.-led attacks on Libya. Foreign crises rage across Africa and the Middle East, and Americans still want the economy to improve more quickly.
The president left behind a wave of goodwill in Latin America as he shored up alliances that the White House said would prove pivotal for years to come. Yet the timing made for political and logistical headaches, as his five-day trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador took place just as the U.S. and allies launched a U.N.-sanctioned assault against Moammar Gadhafi’s menacing regime.
But frankly, Obama’s performance in Latin America was fairly underwhelming as well.
On pending free trade deals with Colombia and Panama, Obama didn’t offer much hope that he was going to complete these deals as he promised in his State of the Union address. The Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer reported:
On the pending U.S. free trade deals with Colombia and Panama, I asked Obama whether he sees a better than 50 percent chance that he will send them to Congress for a vote this year.
“I won’t put a number on it, but I am very interested in getting those deals done,” he said.
But this year? I insisted. Republicans are accusing Obama of dragging his feet on both deals because of resistance from U.S. labor unions whose support Obama will need to be reelected next year.
“I am sending my team to Colombia and Panama to see how we can quickly resolve any final differences before we put them to Congress,” he said.
This year? I insisted once again.
“Whenever you put a timetable, people complain if it happens even a week after your deadline, so I try to avoid those numbers,” he said.
My translation: Obama is not ready to spend much political capital on the two pending free trade deals with Latin America, at least not yet. And if he doesn’t do it this year, it’s not likely to happen during an election year in 2012.
Obama’s equivocation did not go over well with former trade representative Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) who issued a statement today:
“Despite repeated promises over the past twenty-six months to move on these pending export initiatives, President Obama once again punted, and American workers come out on the losing end.”
“Exports play a vital role in growing our economy and getting people back to work. American workers, and the goods and services they produce, are second to none. It is essential that we take every opportunity to increase exports because that leads to jobs here in America. President Obama says he agrees with that, but his actions do not match his rhetoric,” said Portman, who noted that if we don’t act on Colombia and Panama, studies show that over 38,000 American jobs could be lost.
The U.S.-Colombia agreement was signed in 2006 and the U.S.-Panama agreement was signed in 2007. In order to put these agreements in place, and add American jobs, the Obama administration has to send them to Congress before a vote. For political reasons, the Obama administration continues to drag its feet.
“The choice is simple — complete the pending agreements or continue with the high unemployment and U.S. economic decline we have seen during this administration,” continued Portman, who predicts that if the president were to send the agreements to Congress, they would pass.
But it has become abundantly clear that Obama has no intention of delivering those deals any time soon.
While he wasn’t giving assurances on trade deals, Obama was absolutely mute on Alan Gross, the American thrown in a Cuban prison on trumped up charges. Some sympathetic observers see a deal in the works based on the secretary of state’s ambiguous comments. This seems like wishful thinking, and in any event perpetuates the appearance that Obama is willing to extend unilateral gestures regardless of the response by the Cuban dictatorship.
Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams e-mailed me, “The Obama Administration seems determined NOT to use pressure to free Alan Gross. There has been no change in policy, which continues to give advantages like increased American tourist flows to Castro despite this hostage crisis. It means that the only means of pressure the Administration will use to free is words. And that’s not enough.”
Moreover, it reminds us that while Obama occasionally perks up on human rights, when it comes to policy decision-making that issue never makes it to the top of the priority list.