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President’s View: Center Stage for Free Trade


January 5, 2015

Conventional wisdom can take many forms.

It can give you a blueprint for success or serve as an excuse for failure. It is regularly cited but often ignored. It becomes the norm by proving itself over time but can be shattered in an instant.

Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in the movies and courageously battled personal health issues in real life, once said, “Never accept ultimatums, conventional wisdom, or absolutes.”

Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart who changed the face of Main Street in America’s towns, advised everyone to “Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom.”

Rush Limbaugh was more direct when he simply said, “I reject most conventional wisdom.”

Whether or not you buy into this sort of thing, there is no dispute that the conventional wisdom in 2015 is that the newly elected Republican Congress and the approaching lame duck Democratic president will fight and argue most of this year without producing much substance. Important issues such as repealing Obamacare, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing burdensome restrictions, making our tax code more competitive and improving our broken immigration system are all thought to be difficult to resolve anytime soon.

While that may or may not be proven true in the coming months, international trade appears to be an issue poised to break through the conventional wisdom and experience success this year.

The president has recently signaled that he wants to aggressively push Congress for fast track authority and trade agreements this year, surprising some of his critics and frustrating some of his traditional allies in organized labor for his changed position on this topic.

In 2008, during a Democratic presidential candidate debate, then candidate Obama made it clear he would use the threat of opting out of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) all together in order to impose restrictions pushed by environmental and organized labor groups. However, more recently, he gave a speech to a group of U.S. CEOs and said, “Those who oppose these trade deals ironically are accepting a status quo that is more damaging to American workers.”

The evolution of his position on free trade could produce immediate results. Republican leadership and the president are publicly agreeing on the need to act quickly on legislation to grant fast track approval of trade deals by Congress and pass a massive Asia-Pacific trade pact and larger agreement with the European Union that would explode exports to these regions.

According to a recent Politico article, the Asia-Pacific pact would cover about 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and about a third of global trade, while the legislation needed to pass trade promotion authority could be a vehicle for several other free trade agreements.

Fast track authority has been a goal of many free trade advocates for years because it empowers the U.S. to negotiate aggressive trade agreements and bring them to Congress for a clean up or down vote. Organized labor has typically opposed this type of legislation because they want to manipulate any negotiated trade agreement through their supporters in Congress. The stalemate has held back U.S. trade policy for decades and resolving this one issue alone could open an unprecedented era of free trade.

Louisiana can benefit greatly from this type of break from conventional wisdom.

According to the World Trade Center of New Orleans, Louisiana is currently sixth among U.S. exporters and is rapidly closing the gap on fifth ranked Illinois. Louisiana is out performing the national export growth rate by 4.32 percent, and accounted for 3.87 percent of the $1.208 trillion in total U.S. exports last year through the third quarter.

Petroleum based products continue to be a leading export market for Louisiana, accounting for roughly 42 percent of our exports, but other strong markets like agriculture and chemicals continue to diversify our portfolio at an impressive rate.  Primary metal manufacturing and aerospace equipment exports are on the rise, with the latter being supported by a new 82,300-square-foot Bell Helicopter assembly facility in Lafayette.

Few states stand to benefit as much as we do from an aggressive approach to free trade in Congress this year.

Conventional wisdom argues against it happening. The odds favor a year filled with finger pointing and name calling in Washington, D.C., but conventional wisdom has been proven wrong before.

Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive officer at HP, once said, “To build a great company, which is a CEO's job, sometimes you have to stand up against conventional wisdom.”

The same is true for leading a nation. The president has signaled he is ready to work with Republicans and stand up against attacks by organized labor to aggressively support free trade. Conventional wisdom says it wont happen, but history shows it can.