President Obama signed today free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama that could be worth billions to American exporters and create tens of thousands of jobs. The agreements will bring to 20 those countries that have free trade relations with the United States. The accord with South Korea is estimated to support 70,000 jobs and could boost exports by $10 billion, erasing the current trade gap.  Exports could go up another $1 billion a year to Colombia.

The three trade deals were initially signed in the George W. Bush administration but were significantly slowed down as the Obama White House renegotiated changes.  The difficulty of bringing these trade agreements to fruition makes it unlikely that there will be another bilaterial trade agreement during the president’s current term.

The president signed the agreements without the usual ceremonial fanfare.  Although Republicans supported the trade agreements, they continue to find fault with the Obama administration’s trade policies, saying the current administration is moving too slowly to find new trade partners.  The administration maintains  it is promoting free trade but wants to assure that the other side is playing by the rules, that worker and environmental rights are observed, and that deals actually promote U.S. job growth.  Nearly three-fourths of House Democrats voted against the trade measures and were most opposed to the Colombia deal because of that country’s record of violence against labor leaders.

“From day one,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the Associated Press, the guiding principle has been not just to complete the three trade agreements but “to develop a new paradigm for trade, and rebuild and restore America’s confidence in our trading policy.”  He added that the administration was on track to reach Obama’s goal, set early last year of doubling U.S. exports over a five-year period.

Obama also signed legislation extending a program to help workers hurt by foreign trade, but the low-key signing ceremony today reflects the unpopularity of free trade pacts among the president’s key labor supporters.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has said it is now shifting its attenton to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an economic alliance that would link the United States with Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand, Vietnam and four countries that are already free trade partners–Australia, Chile, Peru, and Singapore.

 

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