Obama Downplays Trump Trade Agenda—Despite Making Similar Promises in 2008

U.S. President Barack Obama waves before is goes to board Air Force One as he departs following talks with European leaders on November 18, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Obama is on his last trip to Europe as U.S. President. (Photo by
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

President Obama is making his final foreign trips as commander-in-chief. He’s recently back from an Asia-Pacific economic summit in Peru, for example.

While talking with various global leaders, the president fielded a number of questions regarding President-elect Donald Trump’s trade agenda. President Obama took time to assuage the concerns of America’s trading partners, telling them not to “assume the worst” regarding the next administration.

Notably, the president said it was important for other countries to “not make immediate judgments.” Instead, he advised them that, “How you campaign is not always how you govern.”

The various Asia-Pacific nations in attendance, including China and Mexico, have been understandably preoccupied with Donald Trump’s frequently stated concerns regarding both China’s currency manipulation and the shortcomings of NAFTA.

It’s interesting, though, that President Obama would suggest to them that presidential campaign rhetoric might be exaggerated or insincere. And that’s because the Obama of the 2008 presidential campaign offered his own tough talk on China’s currency issues, and also criticized NAFTA. Unfortunately, he never followed through on his promises. Thus the irony of his comments this past weekend.

It’s somewhat fascinating, though, to look back at what Barack Obama actually said in April 2008 at a presidential candidates forum held by the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM). Sounding very Trump-like, Obama stated:

China needs our market. Their economy is dependent on exports to the United States. And we have bargaining power…The problem is that, for all the tough talk of George W. Bush, he is a patsy when it comes to negotiating these agreements. And what we need to do is to just be better bargainers, and say look, here’s the bottom line, you guys keep on manipulating your currency, we are going to start shutting off access to some of our markets.

Similarly, when running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in Ohio during the 2008 primaries, Obama threatened unilateral action on NAFTA, saying that the “hammer of a potential opt-out” provides “leverage” to renegotiate the agreement.

But now, in 2016, we see President Obama reassuring foreign leaders that Donald Trump might not follow through on all of his tough talk. What’s most unfortunate for the nation, however, is that if Barack Obama had actually kept his campaign promises on trade, Donald Trump might not need to propose the same course of action eight years later.

It’s ironic that President Obama is now talking down Donald Trump’s rhetoric, though. Obama certainly appears to have been the same sort of “patsy” that he suggested George W. Bush was. But even if President Obama failed to take any significant action, why should he now attempt to defuse the potential impact of Trump’s own agenda?

As candidate Obama grasped in 2008, the United States possesses bargaining power when it comes to trade negotiations. And so, not only has President Obama failed to utilize such an advantage during his own presidency, but he’s now preemptively weakening the hand of the incoming president.

In Peru, President Obama essentially gave a belated admission of his own political motivations. But his failure to adequately confront China’s mercantilism has left President-elect Trump with the task of digging out of an even deeper hole in 2016 than Obama faced in 2008.

Overall, both Obama and Trump were right to campaign on tough trade talk. But the country can scarcely afford another eight years of the vacillation and ineffectiveness that marked the Obama years.


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