The Next USTR
November 9, 2020
Now that the presidential election appears to be decided, speculation has already begun about who will occupy senior positions in the next administration, including the U.S. trade representative (USTR). Having had numerous calls from reporters over the past weeks on this subject, I’ve decided to write about it. However, if you want gossip, go somewhere else, because I’m going to do it without mentioning any names, aside from former or current office holders.
First, however, a word about the incumbent USTR. While many people disagree with his philosophy and with the administration’s trade policies, most would admit Ambassador Lighthizer has done an excellent job of executing the president’s policies and has proved himself a good negotiator who has also handled the relationship with Congress as well as can be expected under the circumstances. He has been different from his predecessors in spending much less time defending and explaining his policies publicly, but that was probably a wise strategy given the president’s determination to have all the attention focused on himself rather than his subordinates. Had Trump won, the trade community would have welcomed Lighthizer’s continuation in office because almost anybody else Trump would appoint would certainly be less competent.
A Biden appointment will be more complicated, and it might be useful to provide a little history of this position. Most of the time it has been the last, or nearly the last, position filled, and it has often gone to someone who checks a missing box—gender, ethnicity—or someone who has to be given a position because of his or her work in the campaign. Who it has not gone to is a trade expert. The trade specialists who have occupied the position—Charlene Barshefsky, Susan Schwab, and Michael Froman—all “inherited” it by moving up from deputy or, in Froman’s case, over from the White House. (Lighthizer is also in the expert category, but it is widely believed he ended up with the job after someone else more involved in the campaign passed on it and recommended him instead.)
So, the first lesson is that people most often being listed as possibilities, who are mostly trade experts, are the ones who will end up as deputies, while the top position will go to someone nobody has thought of.
The second lesson relates to balance. Trade is a controversial issue in the Democratic Party, at least among its leaders. Public opinion polls show consistent strong pro-trade sentiment among Democrats, particularly among younger voters and minorities. The exception is organized labor, which has long had a close relationship with Democratic elected officials, worked hard to elect Biden, and will demand rewards now that he has won. (There are ironies here, since many union workers voted for Trump, but that’s a subject for another column.)
At the same time, every administration of either party knows very well that when it comes to getting a trade agreement through Congress, the heavy lifting is done by the business community. So, a Democratic administration needs to find someone acceptable to both business and labor—no easy task. In addition, this year there is a campaign led by progressives insisting that no lobbyists be appointed. That is not likely to be fully honored—nor should it be—but USTR is a sensitive position in that regard and likely to be one where the incoming administration wants to stay away from lobbyists. Put all that together, throw in the box-checking issue, and you eliminate a lot of the usual suspects, which is why I predict the winner in a Biden administration will be somebody very few people expect.
Of course, we can’t really finish this discussion without asking whether actual competence matters. The answer is, it should, and frequently has, but perhaps not in the way you think. If you look at past USTRs who were not trade experts when they began—Bob Strauss, Bill Brock, Carla Hills, Mickey Kantor, among others—they rose to the occasion and did excellent jobs, largely because they had the necessary skills. They were good negotiators, they acquired a command of the subject matter, and they understood how to deal with the Congress—all key ingredients for success. The lesson here is that the subject matter knowledge can be acquired—trust me, this is not rocket science—but good political and negotiating skills are harder to find and arguably more important.
So, the bottom line is don’t be taken in by the list makers, think outside the box, and look for the real qualities necessary for success, which may not be what you think.
Finally, let me give a shoutout to the poll workers—observers and ballot counters, both volunteer and employed—who worked tirelessly, often in a stressful environment, to make democracy work. We all are in your debt.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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