The first third of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address proudly repudiated his predecessor’s foreign policy agenda. Biden denounced aggression, despised dictators, praised democracy and hailed allies: point by point, the opposite of Donald Trump’s approach.
Then came a repeated series of promises to legislate “Buy American” in all forms of government action and procurement. Trump nationalism, repudiated as foreign policy, has been rehabilitated as domestic policy.
The architects of the post-war liberal order understood that collective security and free trade were mutually reinforcing. Trump rejected both. Last night Biden endorsed one and rejected the other.
“When we use taxpayer dollars to rebuild America, we will do it by buying American: buy American products, support American jobs,” he said.
When not addressing the cameras, the president and his administration officials usually add a caveat: “in accordance with the international obligations of the United States.” This recognizes that the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade pacts committed the United States to allow equal access to its own government markets in exchange for access to government markets abroad.
But first under the Recovery Act of 2009 and then under the Biden administration’s big spending bills, federal dollars have often been funneled through the states. And state spending has a lot more uncertain relationship free trade commitments signed by the presidents and ratified by the Senate.
Biden’s speech went further, however. It seems to intend to evade all treaty requirements and any concern for efficiency in spending.
There’s been a law in place for nearly a century to make sure taxpayer dollars support American jobs and businesses.
Every administration, Democrat and Republican, says they will, but we actually do.
We’ll buy American to ensure that everything from the deck of an aircraft carrier to the steel for highway guardrails is made in America from start to finish. All. All.
the raison past administrations evaded the Buy American Act of 1933 is encoded in the name: 1933. Economic nationalism sparked and prolonged the Great Depression – and Americans who had endured that trauma pledged never to repeat it.
But memories fade and new challenges can invite the return of old mistakes. In the 21st century, the idea of free trade has lost its grip on both sides: dramatically with Republicans under Trump, and less vociferously, but perhaps more broadly, with Democrats under Biden.
It is often observed that Joe Biden over his long career has not been a leader of the Democrats, but rather always a leading indicator. Wherever Democrats went, he went — rarely the first, but never the last. A friendly critic joked“You could let your conscience guide you; Biden stuck with the median voter. Change that sentence to read “median Democrat” instead of “median voter,” and you’ll have captured the essence of Biden’s policy approach. He now leads a party that has lost faith in trade, and so Biden has abandoned that faith as well.
State of the Union addresses are organized not according to principles of logic, but according to the discipline of the clock. Lots of viewers watch the beginning, but the longer the speech goes, the further they drift away. Only the president’s staunchest supporters can be counted on to endure to the end.
That is why in this speech price controls for prescription drugs were discussed before raising taxes for the rich and corporations, why raising taxes for the rich and corporations was discussed before the gun control agenda, why guns before abortion rights and abortion rights before transgender rights. By the end of the speech, Biden was rallying his Democratic Party loyalists ahead of the 2022 rundown election. Throughout his career, Biden has rallied worshipers by telling them what they want to hear.
The words needed by the nation and the world on support for the beleaguered Ukraine opened the speech. After that, Biden moved on to what he and his team see as a potentially defining issue in 2022: economic nationalism. Trump seized on this issue for Republicans ahead of the 2016 election. On the evidence of this speech, Biden’s top priority is to get it back for 2022.
The big problem for the country and the world is that the message of economic nationalism is particularly and worryingly inappropriate at this time of global crisis. This is never the time for protectionism. But this should be particularly unwelcome during the Russian war against Ukraine. The United States and its partners have sought to assist Ukraine by applying globally coordinated economic and financial sanctions against Russia: sanctions supported not only by Ukraine’s close neighbors within the Union European, but also by Asian partners. We should remember in this crisis how much we all benefit from economic cooperation and financial integration. Instead, the Biden administration seeks those advantages in its foreign policy and then the flaws of them in its domestic policy.
Free trade is not a gift from Americans to others. Free trade also enriches Americans. It creates global markets for the goods and services that Americans sell most competitively: from soybeans and pharmaceuticals to insurance and software. Free trade lowers the prices of the things Americans buy, and especially the things purchased most often by poorer Americans. With inflation concerns front and center in mind, it seems so irrational as to be perverse for Biden to propose to the American taxpayer to pay unnecessarily high prices for goods and services that could be purchased cheaply from of partners and allies. It seems irrational even to the evil to promise that Americans would fight and die to protect, say, South Korea from invasion, but not to buy highway defenses from South Korea if South Korea could sell them for less.
Biden was a free trader. As a senator, he voted for NAFTA in 1993 and for permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000. He understands what he is turning his back on. If he abandons that understanding to routine party management before the 2022 election, how will he recover if he faces a Republican-controlled, ‘America-first’ House of Representatives afterwards? 2022? And when initial enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause wanes, how will Biden maintain a global coalition for democracy at the same time as he weakens trade relations between democracies?
Whether Biden decides to stay on the ballot in 2024 or not, the Democratic future seems to belong to the constituencies Biden was trying to appease and excite in his speech last night. Biden and his team may be right about their party. But if they are, who is left to defend global trade, which created the wealth that today defends global security against the rockets and bombs of predatory Russian imperialism?