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New U.S. Trade Representative Faces Big Challenges Abroad


Expanding trade abroad is a high priority for President Obama. This week, he nominated a trusted adviser named Michael Froman to become the next U.S. trade representative. Froman is currently deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports on the challenges he would face as trade representative.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: If you're a pork producer, an automaker, a telecom company or lots of other things, what the U.S. trade representative does, the kinds of trade deals that are negotiated can have a profound effect on your business. Those pacts can determine how much access you have to overseas markets, what tariffs you'll have to pay, what regulations you'll have to comply with and what kinds of foreign competition you might face at home.

Negotiating these deals is tough. But speaking at the White House earlier this week, President Obama asserted that Michael Froman, his former Harvard law classmate, has the right stuff.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He's won the respect of our trading partners around the world. He's also won a reputation as being an extraordinarily tough negotiator while doing it. He does not rest until he's delivered the best possible deal for American businesses and American workers.

KAUFMAN: The president has been pushing to expand American exports as a way to boost the U.S. economy, but getting agreements among trading partners with different agendas, regulations and methods can take years if agreements can even be reached at all. Scott Miller, a trade policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that two big trade deals are currently in the works: one involves Europe, the other Asia, the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Asia is vitally important strategically, and Miller says economic ties should go along with that. Moreover, many Asian economies are growing very rapidly and better access to those markets would be a big plus for many U.S. businesses. But Miller says the vastly different level of economic development among the countries means their interests are often very different.

SCOTT MILLER: Each one of those economies has a domestic constituency and trade negotiators have to come back and tell their domestic constituency, hey, we won. We had a negotiation and we won. I think Trans-Pacific Partnership poses a very strong strategic rationale, but it's very difficult to get down to actually closing this agreement.

KAUFMAN: As for Europe, nominee Froman has said he wants to complete an agreement on one tank of gas, meaning in just a year or two. But as Scott Miller points out, the European economy is reeling.

MILLER: You've got headline unemployment at 10 percent or higher in most European countries. Trade globalization is kind of a hard sell.

KAUFMAN: International business consultant Michael Samuels, who served as President Reagan's deputy trade representative, cites another stumbling block. The Europeans approach regulations on everything from cosmetics to genetically modified food crops quite differently than the U.S. does.

MICHAEL SAMUELS: I think there are huge possibilities for eliminating regulatory hurdles.

KAUFMAN: But he's quick to say...

SAMUELS: It's not an easy negotiation at all.

KAUFMAN: In addition to these challenges, Samuels says the new U.S. trade representative faces a challenge of a different sort. The job with its clout isn't entirely secure. President Obama has expressed interest in consolidating many trade-related activities, and it's not clear how that might affect the office that Michael Froman's been nominated to lead. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.