Can Biden Resist the Lure of Protectionism?

In the 12 years of the Obama and Trump administrations, Congress has approved only two agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership of 2016 (from which Trump withdrew in 2017) and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement of 2018, which isn’t really a free-trade agreement at all. (An International Monetary Fund analysis of the agreement assessed that, on balance, the USMCA restricted North American trade, as compared with NAFTA, because of its protectionist rules about components of North American automobiles and apparel.)

Why so little trade progress under Barack Obama? In the 1980s, New Democrats such as Clinton and Gary Hart upheld the open-trade cause against union-backed old-line Democrats such as Walter Mondale and Tip O’Neill. Newly elected Vice President Al Gore defended NAFTA on television against Ross Perot in 1993.

By the 2000s, however, the New Democrats were losing ground in their party. Obama used Hillary Clinton’s past support for NAFTA against her in the presidential-nomination contest of 2008. Bernie Sanders tried to use the same trick against Clinton with the TPP in 2016—and scared her enough that she scrubbed her support for TPP from the paperback edition of her 2014 memoir, Hard Choices.

Biden secured the Democratic nomination quickly enough to contain those kinds of fights. He has not resolved them. Instead, he has imported almost all of the Democratic Party’s points of view on trade into his campaign, as his advisers grope for some kind of synthesis.

The good news for Democrats is that synthesis is being reached.

The bad news for the world economy is that the price of that synthesis will be a go-slow approach to new trade negotiations.

“It’s inconceivable to me that Biden would propose a multilateral trade deal,” said Jared Bernstein, one of Biden’s left-leaning advisers. “Trade flows are important and beneficial, but they are no longer much influenced by trade deals.”

Sometimes cheerfully, sometimes reluctantly, Biden’s other advisers agreed with Bernstein’s assessment.

“It is unlikely that Joe Biden is going to walk in and be thinking: How do I reduce trade barriers to generate more growth?” one person near the center of the Biden campaign’s thinking on trade and economics told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. He added: “A lot of promises on how trade was going to deliver have not come true.”

Everyone I spoke with agreed that some increased measure of protectionism in medical supplies is coming. Perhaps the protectionist wall could be extended to encompass Canada and Mexico, and possibly—the more globally inclined advisers hope—widened to include other market-minded democracies too.

Jason Furman, who headed President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2013 to 2014, noted the sudden interest of Democrats in replacing medical imports from abroad. “There was no such noise six months ago,” he said.