Ron Kirk, Obama's Palin-dromic USTR Pick?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 12/19/2008 09:21:00 AM
Punning blogger that I am, you hardly expected me to pass this opportunity up. Earlier on, I styled incumbent EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton as the EuroPalin for her lack of experience in international trade matters before assuming the post. The newswires are now buzzing that US President-elect Barack Obama will fill one of the few remaining unfilled cabinet posts by appointing former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk as his US Trade Representative. What is immediately striking is choosing someone whose experience is wholly in domestic politics--mostly at the municipal level, no less--for a very important international post. Being a political science and not an economics type, I can suggest reasons for this choice:
  1. Obama is famously noncommittal on trade matters; choosing someone with little to no history on trade matters is in line with this--don't reveal your stance until the last possible moment to keep options open;
  2. At the moment, few matters are as contentious as trade in the US (or anywhere else for that matter). Since USTR nominees will have to go through a proces of Senate confirmation, an incoming Congress with an even larger Democratic majority featuring known China-bashers will have less history to comb through with Kirk;
  3. A Google search reveals that there is criticism about Obama having few cabinet picks. Such a pick will help rectify the situation, although the same could have been said with regard to the earlier invitation turned down by Xavier Becerra (D-CA).
  4. This choice is more in keeping with the generally business-friendly crew chosen by Obama for his economic team--Summers, Geithner, etc.
Anyway, here is the Financial Times' take on the impending appointment:
Barack Obama is expected to send a reassuring signal to supporters of free trade on Friday by nominating Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, as US trade representative, according to senior Democratic officials.Mr Kirk was an advocate of free trade during his time as mayor. He backed the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which Mr Obama criticised during Democratic primaries.

Some trade experts expressed surprise over the choice given Mr Kirk’s lack of experience in international trade talks. They questioned whether he would have the clout to push through deals at a time of rising protectionist sentiment. But free-trade supporters drew encouragement from the fact that Mr Obama avoided picking someone with protectionist leanings, in spite of his lukewarm attitude towards the issue during the election campaign. Mr Obama pledged during the Democratic primaries to renegotiate Nafta, which many Americans blame for job losses and industrial decline. He has since toned down his rhetoric.

The president-elect has said he will place greater emphasis on multilateral trade negotiations, including the Doha round, rather than the bilateral deals that were often favoured by the Bush administration. Doubts remain, however, about how much priority Mr Obama will place on trade at a time when his administration faces many more pressing economic challenges.

Xavier Becerra, a Democratic congressman from California who was strongly linked with the trade job, said he preferred to stay in the House of Representatives because he doubted how much power the trade representative would have.

“My concern was how much weight the position would have and what priority it would have,” he told La Opinion, a Spanish-language US newspaper. “I reached the conclusion that it would not be priority number one and perhaps not even priority two or three.”

Trade representative is one of the last three cabinet-level positions that are expected to be filled on Friday as Mr Obama completes the nomination process before heading to Hawaii for a Christmas vacation.
Note that Kirk's most recent employer, Houston legal powerhouse Vinson & Elkins, was closely associated with Enron. If you want an "inside" pick drawn from the American power elite, Rok Kirk is as safe a choice as you can get. Despite some questionable items on his CV, Kirk shouldn't attract much controversy. Still, I doubt whether Kirk would know much about zeroing, Swiss formulas, and other trade minutiae. Like Ashton, he will have to learn fast in terms of on the job training.

Also noteworthy is Obama's other choice for Department of Labor secretary, Hilda Solis (Latin American, natch). In contrast to Kirk, her pro-labor, anti-trade positions are remarkable. Again, it shows how conflicting pressures on Obama are causing seemingly disjointed cabinet picks. You can rest assured that these conflicting forces acting on the incoming administration will continue, likely resulting in policy choices demonstrating a similarly schizophrenic quality. Which faction wins in the end will depend on how bad things get Stateside, with the more Solis-esque supporters gaining the upper hand in the event of a prolonged slowdown.