Holding the Center

I promise this column will be about trade. It gets there circuitously, but it does eventually land there. I want to begin by commenting on the recent debt limit deal—not its contents but its significance and the process that brought it about. First, I think President Biden deserves a lot more credit than he’s getting for doing this deal. He has turned out to be chronically underestimated and underappreciated. Being underestimated can be good for a politician. I worked for one a long time ago and was always intrigued to see how much he could do when most people were not expecting him to do anything.

Being underappreciated is a bigger problem because it means the public is not really seeing your accomplishments. In Biden’s case, in less than three years, he has built a significant record of legislative accomplishment—the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, a modest gun control measure, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and now the debt limit agreement, and he has done it with a very divided Congress and a divided country. You have to go back to Franklin Roosevelt to find a president who accomplished that much in such a short time, and he had a lot more support. Unfortunately, these successes have not translated into public appreciation. His job approval ranking continues to stagnate in the low 40s. Why that is so is a whole separate discussion that will be a popular topic as we lurch toward the next election. My only comment at this point is to the American people—wake up! This guy is a lot better—and more successful—than you think he is. Even if you don’t agree with all his policies, you should give him credit for getting so many of them through. Competence is an important part of governing.

Equally noteworthy is how he did it. Most of these accomplishments, except the IRA, were bipartisan. This is exciting because it suggests we might be able to return to the way this country was governed for most of its history—from the center. Governing from the center is difficult because it requires both major parties to throw their extremist elements over the side, which is exactly what happened last week on the debt limit votes. In an era where politics is increasingly viewed as entertainment, the fringe elements have done a good job of dominating the media and capturing the public’s attention, often at the expense of the truth and always at the expense of good manners. They have made the center boring, which can be fatal in our media-soaked culture. The president understands that “boring” might be bad politics, but it is excellent governing that leads to actual accomplishments the public will eventually appreciate, although perhaps not by November 2024.

As a nearly 40-year veteran of Congress, he also understands one of the cardinal rules of success there—don’t let the perfect by the enemy of the good. This is something Democrats on the left and conservative Republicans on the right have never figured out. They would rather stand on principle and go down in flames—and get all the media attention in the process—than work constructively on a compromise. This is grandstanding at its worst and is really a betrayal of their obligation to the voters, who elected them to govern, not to tweet. Success in public service should be measured by your legislative accomplishments and not your number of Twitter followers.

These bipartisan successes are a good sign, but they do not mean the battle for sanity and the center is over. It is only just the beginning. The president, to his credit, believes in the center, and has proved remarkably adroit at finding it. Now he has to continue to find it, as the administration moves on to new challenges. That is where trade comes in, because it is one of the rare areas where bipartisan agreement has been possible. It is also one of the areas where the administration has been a disappointment. So, the president now has an opportunity to kill, or at least wound, two birds with one stone. A revitalized trade policy could reinforce centrist politics and at the same time do something good for American workers and businesses.

The precedent, of course, is the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, which passed on an overwhelming bipartisan vote (and, by the way, with slightly more Democratic than Republican support, for those of you who think the Democrats are the protectionists). That episode was also noteworthy because some notorious flamethrowers, notably the AFL-CIO, decided to play ball and go along with a compromise that gave them much of what they wanted. (The environmental left wing, in contrast, did not play well with others and ended up getting very little.) Can this be repeated? I don’t know, but I do know that if we don’t try, we will certainly fail. That will require the president to move away from his current risk-averse trade policy and wade into some contentious waters with people on both sides who still think perfect is more important than good. So far, he has demonstrated that he believes in compromise and clearly knows how to get there. All that remains is for him to decide that trade is a good place to continue reinforcing the center.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.