Leadership, said New Jersey governor Chris Christie in his press conference Tuesday announcing he would not reverse his decision not to run for president, is something you can’t be taught or learn. “Leadership today in America has to be about doing the big things and being courageous.”
No one doubts that Christie has shown this kind of leadership in New Jersey. Call him loudmouthed, call him confrontational, but don’t call him wobbly. He leads, and even with a Democratic-majority legislature, the state is moving in his direction.
Things are different on the national level. On the day before Christie spoke in Trenton, the Obama White House officially delivered the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama to Congress for approval. That was the 986th day that Barack Obama has been president.
He could have sent them 985 days earlier; negotiations were completed in 2006 and 2007. Or, if he were concerned they’d be deep-sixed when his fellow Democrats controlled Congress, he could have sent them 274 days earlier, when Republicans took over the House.
To be sure, they are opposed by many labor-union leaders and congressional Democrats. There is a nostalgia among many union and party old-timers for the days — more than 30 years distant — when the auto and steel workers’ unions had nearly 2 million members.
Now each has less than half a million. But the old-timers seem to feel that somehow something like those olden days can be brought back if they oppose FTAs.
Any responsible president has to take a different view. The free-trade agreements in question mostly dismantle barriers to U.S. exporters. Barriers to imports into the U.S. are either already low or nonexistent.
And these are serious markets: South Korea has the eleventh or twelfth largest economy in the world; Colombia is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world; Panama has had vigorous economic growth and is widening the Panama Canal to allow Pacific container ships into Gulf and Atlantic ports.
Democratic presidents used to lead on trade. John Kennedy’s major domestic initiative in his first two years was a trade-expansion act. Most Democrats voted for it, and most Republicans against, with disabling amendments offered by Sen. Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of future presidents.
Bill Clinton took the lead on trade, too. He strongly backed the North American Free Trade Agreement — an initiative of Mexican-border-state politicians like Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Lloyd Bentsen — and pushed it through both houses of a Democratic Congress.
Obama chose a different course. He has held back on the free-trade agreements and has put pressure on the other treaty partners to make further concessions. This propitiated his union allies and their Democratic sympathizers for a time.
But his State of the Union call for doubling U.S. exports made it obvious that he would have to get Congress to approve the FTAs. How can you double exports if you refuse to advance measures that would open up markets to them?
Of course, now the unions and many Democrats are angry at him for not continuing to obstruct the free-trade agreements. In the meantime, South Korea has been signing free-trade agreements with the likes of Chile and the European Union. That gives European exporters a head start over Americans.