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Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About Presidents And Trade Policy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's time now for Ask Cokie. And today we're talking about trade. On his 100th day in office, President Trump signed an executive order directing his commerce secretary to review all U.S. trade agreements. More than half a century of U.S. presidents have extolled the virtues of free trade. Here's John F. Kennedy as he signed the Landmark Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: (Reading) This act recognizes fully and completely that we cannot protect our economy by stagnating behind tariff walls but that the best protection possible is a mutual lowering of tariff barriers among friendly nations so that all may benefit from the free flow of goods.

MARTIN: Commentator Cokie Roberts joins me now. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So Americans aren't all on the same page when it comes to their perceptions of trade and whether it does really lift all boats.

ROBERTS: Right.

MARTIN: Is this a new level of skepticism or something we've always kind of lived with?

ROBERTS: Well, we've certainly always had fraught attitudes about trade. It has been an issue from the very beginning. The Federalist Papers, with the Constitution, argues that trade is one of the reasons to have a constitution because those individually loosely confederated states couldn't manage foreign trade. But keep in mind what a role trade had played in our separation from Great Britain. I mean, a natural state is that people trade with each other. And it's only when governments put some barrier in the way of that that trouble ensues. And so when the British essentially put a tariff on tea by taxing it, the Americans resisted and put in a boycott to British goods. And eventually it led to the revolution.

MARTIN: And of course every time you impose a tariff, I mean, there are major consequences as we see when we look at history.

ROBERTS: Right. And it was, primarily in the beginning, used as a revenue raiser. And the very first Congress passed tariffs on imported wine, coffee, tea and distilled spirits (laughter). But...

MARTIN: Good for them.

ROBERTS: ...Then Thomas Jefferson tried to get involved - avoid getting involved in war between France and England by passing the Embargo Act, which everybody hated. The Southerners wanted to export their agricultural goods. The Northerners wanted to import manufactured goods. So there was widespread smuggling, and we ended up in war with England anyway. And then later in the century, the infamous Tariff of Abominations, which was designed to protect Northern and Western agricultural interests, resulted in the Nullification Crisis, where South Carolina's Calhoun said that states don't have to obey the federal government. And that was one of the many precursors to the Civil War.

MARTIN: And of course there's another infamous act many people have read about in their junior high and high school history books, Smoot-Hawley of 1930.

ROBERTS: Smoot-Hawley - they've gone down in history. Some people blame it for the Great Depression or at least the worsening of the Depression. It was intended to protect U.S. agriculture against cheap foreign imports after World War I. But all kinds of industries decided they wanted to be protected as well by the time Herbert Hoover signed the bill. And it really had the effect of shutting off trade.

And economists and presidents since then have felt strongly that trade is beneficial to the U.S. economy. And now trade accounts for almost 30 percent of U.S. GDP. But of course, Rachel, there are winners and losers in any trade agreement. And President Trump's been talking about the losers, though he did reverse the campaign promise to pull out of NAFTA.

MARTIN: So I do have a question from a listener about trade with one particular country, China. Helen Wolfe asks the following - what trade agreements did Nixon have with China?

ROBERTS: Well, in 1971, Nixon ended the trade embargo against China that had basically been in place since the Communists had taken over. And now China, of course, is our biggest trading partner. But that relationship has been fraught because, again, this question of using trade as a tool for other things, to try to get China to respect human rights.

And it was especially tense after Tiananmen Square, with some Democrats insisting China should be excluded from the World Trade Organization, Bill Clinton promising to do that when he ran for office. But then he broke that promise and brought China in in 2000. And it was the view of many that China, inside the world community, would be a better place. As Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn said at the time, it was necessary for maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. So it sounds very familiar. We'll see if President Trump agrees.

MARTIN: You can ask Cokie Roberts your questions about how government and politics work. You can do it on Twitter using the hashtag #AskCokie or email askcokie@npr.org. I've learned something here today as usual. Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINGVALL TRIO'S "PA ANDRA SIDAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.