In 2021, Biden Didn’t Meet Free Traders’ Already-Low Expectations

Dear Capitolisters,

Weeks before this newsletter existed—you know, way back in the summer of 2020 (which honestly does feel like a million years ago)—The Dispatch Management asked me to gaze into my crystal ball and answer the question of “What Would a Biden Administration Do on Trade?” At that time, I wasn’t very optimistic about Biden on trade but did expect modest improvements over his predecessor in some—but not all—key areas. Now that we’re a year into that administration, we can make an initial assessment of both how Biden has done—and how well my predictions turned out.

(Spoiler: pretty poorly and pretty well, respectively.)

Before I begin, however, a quick note about my methodology for judging Biden’s 2021 performance: as Capitolism readers know well by now, I’m a strong supporter (understatement!) of free trade and free markets—for affirmative economic, geopolitical, and moral reasons but also because the alternative to admittedly-imperfect and messy freer market policies—protectionism—is just so much worse. In this regard, the Trump administration’s trade policies were a long and painful lesson in relearning what trade policy experts and presidents understood well by the mid-1990s after decades of U.S. managed trade messes and costly, ineffective unilateral protectionism. I won’t rehash those lessons here, but you can find plenty to chew on here (tariffs) and here (China) and here (trade generally). That said, I also understand the politics of trade—especially right now—and thus have never expected Biden (or any other president, for that matter) to suddenly become Milton Friedman or even George W. Bush in 2021 America. My grades today—much like my predictions in 2020—account for these realities, as well as Biden’s own trade-skeptical history. In short, I wasn’t expecting much.

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