Obama Picks Former Mayor Ron Kirk for Top Trade Post

14 January 2009

Ron Kirk, a lawyer and former mayor of Dallas, Texas, has been nominated to be Barack Obama’s US Trade Representative, the President-elect announced at a press conference on 19 December.
Kirk, a 54-year-old Texan who served as the first African-American mayor of Dallas from 1995 to 2002, has also worked as a private attorney and corporate lobbyist. Kirk served briefly as the Texas Secretary of State in 1994 and was also considered a top contender to lead the Department of Transportation under the Obama administration.
Since Kirk’s nomination was announced nearly a month ago, his positions on specific trade issues have been the object of significant public scrutiny. For the most part, his admittedly limited record on trade shows that he appreciates the value of open markets. As mayor of Dallas, Kirk was a strong supporter NAFTA, which he viewed as key to stimulating the local economy. He has also gone on record in favour of establishing permanent normalised trade relations with China. Both moves have upset some labour rights activists.
But Kirk is far from an unabashed free trader. In a race for the Senate in 2002, Kirk said that he strongly opposed granting Congress ‘fast track authority’, which limits lawmakers’ ability to block or make amendments to trade agreements negotiated by the USTR.
But beyond those few statements, Kirk’s record on trade is thin. Time will tell how the USTR office under his direction will handle the trade promises that Obama made on the campaign trail, which include demanding strong labour and environmental standards in trade deals and re-negotiating portions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"The exciting thing for me is that the president very much sees a robust trade policy as part of his economic agenda. He understands that the United States can't be protectionist, can't step back from our trade relations," Kirk said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News the day after his nomination was announced. "But he wisely ... thinks that we can do better in enforcing those laws that protect our environment and protect our workers."
Kirk struck a similar chord at the press conference announcing his nomination: “I believe a values-driven trade agenda that stays true to our commitment to American workers and environment sustainability is not only consistent with a pro-trade agenda but also necessary for success,” he said. 
Obama cited Kirk’s experience as the mayor of Dallas, which he called “one of the world’s biggest economies,” would serve him well in the post.
“He has seen the promise of trade, but also its pitfalls. And he knows there is nothing inconsistent about standing up for free trade and standing up for American workers,” Obama said. “As a leader, negotiator, and principled proponent of trade, Ron will help make sure that any agreements I sign as President protect the rights of all workers, promote the interests of all Americans, and preserve the planet we all share.”
Free traders in Washington were happy about the pick. Current USTR Susan Schwab called him “an excellent choice,” and said that she hopes that he “continues the work that we have done to benefit US workers, farmers and entrepreneurs.  As a former mayor of Dallas, which is a major hub of international business, he understands the importance of trade,” she said.
“Ron Kirk is an inspired choice to serve as US Trade Representative in the Obama Administration.” John Engler, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers – the largest industrial trade association in the US, said in a statement. “Texas is our largest exporting state, and Ron Kirk has seen firsthand how important free trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, are to our economy,” he said.
Praise also came from Capitol Hill. Congressmen Charles Rangel, who heads the Ways and Means Committee, and Sander Levin, the chair of the Subcommittee on Trade, issued a joint statement praising Obama’s nominee. “Mr. Kirk has proven himself to be an intelligent, strategic leader who understands the needs of our communities enabling him to be a powerful advocate for America’s interests in the global marketplace,” the congressmen, both Democrats, wrote in the statement.
And Democratic Senator Max Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, also welcomed Kirk’s nomination, calling the USTR-designate “a distinguished attorney and former big-city mayor with a long record of accomplishment in both the public and private sectors.”
But some less ardent supporters of free trade expressed either wariness or outright scepticism at Obama’s choice for the post. Congressman Michael Michaud, a Democrat from Maine, said that he was “deeply concerned about the choice of Ron Kirk.” Kirk’s “past trade policy positions do not reflect the views of most Americans,” Michaud said, citing the former mayor’s support of NAFTA and normalised trade relations with China; his views “do not reflect the reform agenda that President Obama has pledged to an American public clamouring for a new direction on trade.”
But Kirk sought to dampen public speculation about the stances he may take as USTR, saying that his record on trade should not be interpreted too narrowly.
"My responsibility as a mayor was to aggressively promote my city and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex as a great place to do business," Kirk said in the interview with The Dallas Morning News. "My responsibility as the president's US trade rep is to administer all aspects of our trade policy, including that part of our policy that meets our environmental objectives and takes care of America's workers.
"So I just ask everybody to take a breath and give us time," he said. "My agenda is the president's agenda."
Obama had reportedly offered the cabinet-level USTR post to Representative Xavier Becerra of California in December (see Bridges Weekly, 10 December 2008, http://ictsd.net/i/news/bridgesweekly/35920/), but the Congressman turned him down, preferring to stay on in the House of Representatives, where he had recently won a leadership post.
In an interview with La Opinion, a Los Angeles area Spanish-language publication, Becerra expressed some hesitation about taking the post. “My concern is how much weight this position would have had, and I reached the conclusion that it would not be a top priority, or even second or third priority,” he said.
Items on the agenda
It is true that trade will not be at the top of the new president’s agenda. Stimulating the struggling economy, reforming the country’s healthcare system, and addressing climate change are expected to be the administration’s priorities. Working in the grim economic climate may prove to be especially challenging for the new USTR, who will have to negotiate with a Congress that may be warier than ever about further trade opening.
But several items are definitely on the USTR’s agenda for the near future. Kirk will have to decide how to handle bilateral trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that the executive branch has negotiated but that are awaiting Senate approval. The new USTR will also need to decide his approach to the currently stalled Doha Round of trade talks at the WTO.
Provided that Kirk wins the approval of the Senate, he will take office no earlier than 20 January, the day that Obama becomes US President.
ICTSD reporting. “Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk to be named to Obama cabinet, ” DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 18 December 2008; “Ron Kirk says free trade key to economic recovery,” DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 20 December 2008; “Ex-Dallas Mayor Kirk said to be Obama’s trade pick,” BLOOMBERG, 18 December 2008.

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