The Biden Agenda: What Would a Biden Administration Do on Trade?

Good morning and welcome to the next latest in our series, “The Biden Agenda.” We’ve invited some of the smartest thinkers and subject-matter experts we know to contribute to what will become an occasional series on what a Biden presidency might look like. Today’s piece is by Scott Lincicome, a leading expert on international trade policy. He’s a senior fellow in economic studies at the Cato Institute and a contributor to The Dispatch.

Political predictions are notoriously difficult; predicting a Biden White House’s trade policy is even more so. In general, supporters of open trade and the global trading system should prepare for an improvement in U.S. trade policy over the one advanced by President Trump since 2017, but it’s far from certain that the difference will be as big as hoped. 

This tepid conclusion stems not from my own timidity or ignorance (well, not entirely at least), but instead from two key facts. First, Biden’s campaign team—much like the Democratic Party itself these days—is conflicted on trade: some senior advisers have long parroted labor union views on protectionism and industrial policy, while others preach from the Democrats’ urban, “globalist,” and increasingly suburban side of the aisle. Who will “win” this debate in a future Biden transition team is anyone’s guess.

Second, although Biden’s initial campaign proposals are heavy on economic nationalism and light on trade liberalization or agreements, “presidential campaign policies” do not necessarily become “White House policies”—a fact for most policy areas, but especially for trade policy. This is because, although most Americans support open trade, they don’t know or care much about (and thus vote on) the issue, and of the few who do care, the most intense and politically-valuable voters—say, former union members in Wisconsin—are on usually the protectionist side. Thus, campaigning politicians have long viewed protectionist promises as a way to win swing state votes with little risk of losing voters on the other side of the issue. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll govern that way. See, for example, President Obama’s quick dismissal of candidate Obama’s promise to renegotiate NAFTA.

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