Washington Policy Wonks Wait for Froman as Trade Rep (5/3)     Print Email

For Washington policy wonks it had become the equivalent of waiting for white smoke to emerge from the Vatican. But the selection of a new Pope came a lot more quickly in March  than President Obama's appointment of his top international economic advisor Michael Froman as U.S. Trade Representative.


And the reason the months of waiting and speculation matter outside Washington is that Froman will be the lead American negotiator on two massive trade deals nearly simultaneously -- the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 12 Pacific Rim countries. The two potential free trade agreements, known in policy circles by their acronyms TTIP and TPP, would cover trillions of dollars in trade among nearly every major developed economy in the world.

The U.S. trade job has been open since early this year, and Froman had resisted pressure to take it, preferring to exercise the perks and powers of his job in the west wing of the White House. But at least one alternate pick was vetoed by powerful Congressional chairmen, leaving President Obama no choice—according to the smart money-- but to move Froman across the street to the USTR office. Among those helping persuade Froman to make the move was President George W. Bush's trade representative, Robert Zoellick, who told his Democratic counterpart several weeks ago there was no way he could guide the two trade negotiations to fruition from the White House and that the job now required a figure with political clout and the ear of the President.

The Pacific pact is further along in negotiations.  A 17th round of talks will be held in May and a deal possibly could be done by the end of the year. The grouping, originally of smaller Asian economies  plus the U.S., had not gained much attention until Mexico and Canada signed on last year and Asia's second largest economy, Japan, decided to enter the talks early this year.

The Atlantic pact is just getting out of the starting gate, and  formal negotiations are expected to begin in July. President Obama gave it prominence in his State of the Union speech in February. On the other side of the ocean  its most enthusiastic backer has been the German government of Chancellor Angela Merkel along with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

At a conference yesterday of the German business group RGIT (Representative of German Industry and Trade), Ambassador Peter Ammon described the negotiations as a "once in a lifetime opportunity."

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Dan Mullaney cautioned against European hopes for a quick deal, describing as "very ambitious" an agreement within two years. He said the Obama administration had no timetable and added that "it is very important to get it right."

Mullaney suggested that differences in U.S. and EU regulatory approaches could be the major obstacle to agreement  "We will need to be creative and careful," he said.

And the EU nations are not yet united behind a possible deal. French President Francoise Hollande has warned that changes to audio-visual and agriculture protections could be red lines. And the European Parliament, with a push from French MEPs,  passed a resolution with the same warning. German Bundestag member Peter Beyer of the ruling CDU party told the Washington conference that German officials and diplomats are pushing for a consensus in the European Council but that agreement has not yet been achieved.

Froman, 50, comes to the job with a glittering resume (Princeton, Oxford and Harvard Law) and noteworthy mentors (Robert Rubin) and law school classmates (Barack Obama). He was Rubin's chief of staff at the Treasury Department and moved with him to Citibank. But life has not been all upwardly bound glitz for Froman and his wife Nancy Goodman. They experienced the most searing of tragedies, losing their oldest son at age 10 to brain cancer.

And Froman is certainly a well known figure in international policy circles, both in his White House post and as U.S. sherpa at G7, G8 and G20 summits.