A 20th-century historian was once asked for his opinion of the French Revolution. “It’s too early to tell,” he said of the event that had taken place 200 years before his time.
Judging President Bush’s legacy (or any President’s legacy) isn’t nearly so complicated, even for scholars who can’t make up their minds. Yet the passage of time always puts things in a less-partisan perspective.
Example: Was the war in Iraq worth it? The answer will hinge on what Iraq looks like years from now, and whether it grows into a vibrant Middle-Eastern democracy or turns into a lair for Islamofascist terrorism. Will it be a good or bad model for other Middle Eastern countries?
Right now, it’s possible to hold an opinion about Iraq’s future. Utter certainty, however, will have to wait.
Reasonable people can differ on Bush’s policies, from his handling of the current financial crisis to whether tax cuts and the prescription drug bill were worth it.
Yet in at least one area, our outgoing president deserves strong praise: He has championed free trade in both word and deed. In doing so, he has expanded economic opportunities for ordinary Americans.
When Bush took the oath of office in 2001, the United States benefited from free-trade agreements with only three foreign countries. Today, we have deals with 11 more. As U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab recently noted, exports to these nations have grown 80 percent faster than our exports to the rest of the world.
We’ll increase this advantage if Congress approves three additional pacts negotiated by the Bush administration: free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.
Failure to act on these opportunities only hurts us. Canada, for instance, has just completed a trade deal with Colombia. Colombia’s 45 million people--a market larger than California’s--now will find it easier to purchase goods and services from Canadians than from Americans.
If Congress were to approve our own accord with Colombia, farmers in particular would profit. Currently, all of our agricultural products pay Colombian tariffs. Under the terms of the agreement, however, half of them immediately would enter Colombia duty free. Remaining barriers would vanish over 15 years. Result: more ag exports to Colombia.
The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement obviously won’t save our economy. Yet deals like it make a big difference for a lot of individual Americans by preserving their jobs and creating new ones. Combined with other agreements, free trade begins to look like a major force for economic betterment.
Our country’s current financial plight is bad enough, but it would be much worse if Americans couldn’t sell goods and services abroad. In 2008, exports actually were THE bright spot for our economy. Moving forward, we should seek to expand upon this success rather than retreat into the false comforts of protectionism.
This will be one of the central challenges that President-elect Obama confronts. Shortly after the election, Christopher Padillo, a trade official in the Bush administration, cautioned that Obama will face “more political pressure for protectionism than any other chief executive since 1930.”
That’s an ominous warning, because the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, passed in 1930 under President Hoover, played a key role in prolonging the Great Depression.
We don’t analyze presidential legacies to replay previous elections or score partisan political points. We analyze them because we want to learn from the past--and specifically to avoid repeating the mistakes of earlier generations. Smoot-Hawley was a huge blunder, and we must do everything in our power to make sure that its hard lesson was well learned.
Bush’s record on trade isn’t perfect. His willingness to accept new tariffs on steel imports during his first term was misbegotten and may have played some part in hurting the domestic auto industry, with effects that we’re only starting to feel now. And although it’s wrong to place the shortcomings of the Doha round of world trade talks on the doorstep of his White House, it’s also possible to imagine how more creative leadership might have mattered.
On the whole, however, America is stronger today because of President Bush’s leadership and support for a freer global trade philosophy.
Barack Obama won election by promising change. When it comes to trade, however, he would do well simply to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org