(This article first appeared on TheAtlantic.com, where Ben Heineman is a frequent contributor)
The contrast was striking. In his State of the Union address, President Obama buried the start of a U.S.-E.U. free trade negotiations in a single sentence well down in the text: ” Tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union, because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”
Yet, remarkably, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times led their editions the second day after the speech with the trade talk stories, and under multi-deck headlines (“Obama Bid for Trade Pact with Europe Stirs Hope: Rise of China May Spur Deal Despite Past Failures–Visions of Lower Prices.“)
In trumpeting the story, the newspapers acknowledged the potential significance of such a deal between the first and second largest economies in the world (E.U. $17 trillion; U.S. $15 trillion; China $12 trillion), reflecting the views of politicians and other leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. In downplaying the announcement, the president was hedging his bets: because of parochial interests in both the U.S. and the E.U., it will be hard to get a meaningful deal done on a host of technocratic issues, and he doesn’t want the trade negotiations to detract politically from the host of other issues he wishes to advance during his second term.
Yet the irony is that the president cannot hedge his bets without effectively undermining, or indeed killing, the talks in their infancy. He must be prepared to put the full weight of the administration, and the full weight of the presidency, behind this project for it to have a decent chance of succeeding. Read more