Should I inflate Obama’s grade on trade policy?

Responding to my last post, both Kevin Drum and Ryan Avent think I’m grading Obama far too harshly on the trade front.  Drum notes: No president can reasonably be expected to put a ton of political muscle behind a lost cause, and major progress on, say, the Doha round, was pretty clearly a lost cause from ...

Responding to my last post, both Kevin Drum and Ryan Avent think I'm grading Obama far too harshly on the trade front.  Drum notes:

No president can reasonably be expected to put a ton of political muscle behind a lost cause, and major progress on, say, the Doha round, was pretty clearly a lost cause from the day Obama entered office. In the face of a catastrophic global recession, there was never even the slightest chance of gaining support either at home or abroad for any major trade initiatives, and it's simply not reasonable to expect Obama to put any energy behind it. Not only would it have gone nowhere, it might even have been counterproductive. Better to wait until the global climate provides at least a bit of a tailwind.

Second, this isn't a classroom, where you get an F for not showing up. In politics, you get an F for being counterproductive. Obama hasn't been. He's simply ignored trade as an issue. But he hasn't done any harm, and under the circumstances that's quite possibly about as much as a trade enthusiast could have hoped for.

Responding to my last post, both Kevin Drum and Ryan Avent think I’m grading Obama far too harshly on the trade front.  Drum notes:

No president can reasonably be expected to put a ton of political muscle behind a lost cause, and major progress on, say, the Doha round, was pretty clearly a lost cause from the day Obama entered office. In the face of a catastrophic global recession, there was never even the slightest chance of gaining support either at home or abroad for any major trade initiatives, and it’s simply not reasonable to expect Obama to put any energy behind it. Not only would it have gone nowhere, it might even have been counterproductive. Better to wait until the global climate provides at least a bit of a tailwind.

Second, this isn’t a classroom, where you get an F for not showing up. In politics, you get an F for being counterproductive. Obama hasn’t been. He’s simply ignored trade as an issue. But he hasn’t done any harm, and under the circumstances that’s quite possibly about as much as a trade enthusiast could have hoped for.

Avent concurs.  He notes that global trade has survived and thrived after the Great Recession, concluding, "The global economy has lived to fight another day, and that’s something to appreciate."

These are interesting points, but I fear that Drum and Avent are far too easy in their grading.  Rewarding Obama for not making things worse on the trade front is like rewarding him for not invading Pakistan — kudos for not pursuing a spectacularly bad idea, but really, is that a positive accomplishment?  I think not.  Or to use another grading analogy — students can receive an F even if they don’t plagiarize. 

As for Obama resisting the tides of protectionism, I’ll credit the separation of powers a bit more than Drum or Avent.  The U.S. political system is arranged to make it very difficult for anyone to change the status quo.  Even if Barack Obama wanted to pull the United States out of the World Trade Organization, for example, he likely couldn’t have gotten the necessary votes in Congress.   The Obama administration has mildly resisted more hawkish member of Congress to "get tough" with China.  That’s about it in terms of preventing protectionism.  When I said Obama had done almost nothing on trade, I wasn’t kidding.   

If I have a student who barely puts in any work and nevertheless writes great papers, they’ll receive a good grade.  The outcome matters more as one matriculates.  A student who barely puts in any work and has nothing to show for it?  F city. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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