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Spend the political capital to advance free trade

At last week’s North American summit, President Obama testified to the many benefits that have accrued to Mexico, Canada and the U.S. as a consequence of lowering trade barriers through the North American Free Trade Agreement. And the president made clear that much of last week’s summit focused on ways to reduce any continuing trade frictions.

Reinforcing his commitment to facilitating international trade, on the plane ride back from Mexico President Obama signed an executive order to streamline government processing and approvals for American businesses to export their products.

Coupled with the vow the president made four years ago to double U.S. exports by 2015, these actions seem to indicate a real desire to enhance America’s economic recovery and competitiveness by promoting increased flows of trade.

As Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker recently stated, “The fact is that 95 percent of customers worldwide live outside U.S. borders, and that is why promoting exports is essential to our economic growth and job creation.”

And in a speech on Friday, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman touted the president’s “aggressive trade agenda.” He described free trade as “consistent not just with our economic interests, but also with our values.”

Yet for all this messaging, Washington is not doing enough to promote trade that would stimulate the American economy.

For one thing, as I have noted many times on this blog, the Obama administration is taking entirely too long to cycle through the lengthy backlog of LNG export applications sitting at the Department of Energy. Significant economic opportunities for American companies are dwindling as DOE takes its time – with no indication of when it will move on those applications awaiting DOE action.

Meanwhile some congressional leaders are trying to stymie efforts to reduce trade barriers. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently declared opposition to the president’s signature proposals on trade.

If President Obama wishes to carve a legacy of support for free trade – and much of what his administration has done since 2009 suggests he believes deeply in this issue – then he will almost certainly need to spend some political capital to ensure that Congress moves forward and approves critical free-trade measures.

For the sake of the American economy, it would be capital well spent.

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