Can Jack Lew breathe life into a moribund trade agenda?

Can Jack Lew breathe life into a moribund trade agenda?

President Obama’s apparent selection of his current chief of staff, Jack Lew, to be the next Treasury secretary reflects some interesting choices. One that has received ample attention is the choice between a denizen of Pennsylvania Avenue versus someone from Wall Street. The Washington Post led with this facet of the selection:

"President Obama recently said he would love to hire a top executive into his administration. But for the job of Treasury secretary, he didn’t pick a corporate executive, a famous economist or a former politician — he has decided to tap a trusted adviser … an expert on the nation’s ongoing budget wars."

Given Lew’s budget expertise and his background at State, the president had no need to choose between domestic and international qualifications for the post, but his limited time in the private sector is different from the background of some financial titans who have previously held the job.  

The most interesting choice, though, may have been between insider and outsider. Here the choice of Lew stands in contrast to the selection of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) for State. Whereas Kerry’s prominence comes from his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his candidacy for president, Lew’s top positions (including his directorship of the Office of Management and Budget) have been in the Executive Office of the President, serving the president.

The Treasury secretary job is so broad that any nominee would be lacking experience in some dimension — financial markets, international dealings, budget and political matters. That can be at least partially offset by a willingness to listen to broadly, and listen closely to the right people. It may be significantly harder to suppress strong tendencies to carry out the president’s wishes and risk confrontation through presenting a contrary view. The Wall Street Journal expressed some skepticism about Lew in this regard.

It is not clear how much this independence, or lack thereof, will matter at the margin for international economic policy (loosely defined as those matters on which Dan Drezner and I wager). From the outset of the Obama presidency, Treasury and State officials privately acknowledged the necessity of moving ahead with the three pending free trade agreements. One could hardly doubt Secretary Clinton’s independence or willingness to voice her views. Yet the completed agreements took almost three years to pass.

When it comes to the second term agenda of concluding Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, launching and completing a U.S.-EU. free trade agreement, or making progress at the WTO, the next secretaries of Treasury and State will have a major role to play, but the domestic political obstacles loom large. These agreements are broader than the formerly-pending free trade agreements, they are not pre-cooked, they present more challenges in international negotiation, and they may face equal or greater domestic political obstacles. To overcome all this, Lew and Kerry will need to be even more adept than their well-qualified predecessors.