Contra Doug Irwin, the Economist is quite pessimistic about President Obama’s tire tariffs: “A protectionist move that is bad politics, bad economics, bad diplomacy and hurts America. Did we miss anything?”
One might argue that these tariffs don’t matter much. They apply, after all, only to imports worth a couple of billion dollars last year, hardly the stuff of a great trade war… Presidents, after all, sometimes have to throw a bit of red meat to their supporters: Mr Obama needs to keep the unions on side to help his health-reform bill.
That view seems naive. It is not just that workers in all sorts of other industries that have suffered at the hands of Chinese competitors will now be emboldened to seek the same kind of protection from a president who has given in to the unions at the first opportunity. The tyre decision needs to be set into the context of a string of ominously protectionist policies which started within weeks of the inauguration with a nasty set of “Buy America” provisions for public-works contracts. The president watered these down a bit, but was not brave enough to veto. Next, the president stayed silent as Congress shut down a project that was meant to lead to the opening of the border to Mexican trucks, something promised in the NAFTA agreement of 1994. Besides these sins of commission sit the sins of omission: the president has done nothing at all to advance the three free-trade packages that are pending in Congress, with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, three solid American allies who deserve much better. And much more serious than that, because it affects the whole world, is his failure to put anything worthwhile on the table to help revive the moribund Doha round of trade talks. Mr Bush’s tariffs, like the Reagan-era export restraints on Japanese cars and semiconductors, came from a president who was fundamentally committed to free trade. Mr Obama’s, it seems, do not.