WASHINGTON -- President Obama submitted three long-awaited free trade agreements to Congress this month, which were quickly ratified Wednesday, but Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is still attacking Obama on his trade record.
Obama has been "treated as a doormat" by China, a senior Romney adviser said on a conference call with reporters Thursday, ahead of the candidate’s speech on trade at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle.
It’s a jab at Obama that will probably earn the former Massachusetts governor easy political points in key swing states in the country’s post-industrial Rust Belt. But some conservatives see it as disingenuous.
"Romney's just clearly focused on the politics of it. He doesn't want to appear to be defending China, which is politically expedient," said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth. "He ought to show more leadership than this."
"We haven't come out against Romney, but it certainly grows our concern about what type of president he would be," Chocola told The Huffington Post.
Former Bush administration official Tony Fratto also said Romney’s aggressive stance toward China looked to be a case of posturing.
"I wish he wasn't going in that direction. I don't like seeing presidential candidates taking the opportunity to talk about issues in a campaign that become far too difficult to fulfill when you're actually president," Fratto said. "But there's no question that it's as easy a target as you could take aim at."
Most conservatives believe Obama took far too long to submit the trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Columbia to Congress, as he sought to pacify organized labor.
But the Romney campaign has made China's currency manipulation a major component of their trade policy, arguing that Obama has done little to force China's hand on the issue so that the Yuan can appreciate, lessening the advantage for Chinese manufacturers and allowing U.S. exporters to grow and create more jobs.
The White House, of course, disagrees vehemently, and points to Obama's frank appraisals of China's policies and his public calls for them to do more to allow their currency to appreciate and to crack down on intellectual property and patent theft, which cost U.S. businesses millions of dollars a year.
"My administration has actually been more aggressive than any in recent years in going after some of these practices," Obama said in a news conference last week.
But Romney is pressing for Obama to take the official step of labeling China a currency manipulator. The administration has been unwilling to do that because they believe it would provoke Beijing to erect trade barriers. Nonetheless, Romney has said he would label China a manipulator on his first day in office, and that he would impose tariffs on Chinese imports to the U.S. that are being subsidized by manipulation.
On Thursday, the Romney campaign also said Obama has done nothing to crack down on the theft of intellectual property and patents from the U.S., citing stats that said counterfeiting costs U.S. businesses as much as $250 billion a year and costs the economy roughly 750,000 jobs.
The Senate passed a bill this week that was similar in its scope and intent to Romney's proposal. A total of 16 Republicans were among the 63 votes in favor. The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and pushed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Romney was asked about the bill this week and said he had not read it.
Romney drew criticism during a debate this week from fellow Republican candidate Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China, who called Romney’s position "the Don Trump school."
"If you start slapping penalties on them based on countervailing duties, you're going to get the same thing in return because what they're going to say, because of quantitative easing part one and part two, you're doing a similar thing to your currency," Huntsman said. "And then you're going to find yourself in a trade war very, very quickly."
Not all conservatives, however, are critical of Romney for the path he is taking.
"A president is going to have to stand up to China. I wouldn't go to a trade war on day one," said Jim Rickards, an economic risk analyst whose book Currency Wars will be published next month. "But there are norms in the international financial system ... and if one guy, one player is not adhering to the norms then you’ll be continually disadvantaged."
Rickards said Romney has "showed a little spine" by taking a tough stance on China.
Romney hit back at Huntsman during the debate, saying, "I'm afraid that people who've looked at this in the past have been played like a fiddle by the Chinese," he said. "And the Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank, taking our currency and taking our jobs and taking a lot of our future. And I'm not willing to let that happen."
Tough words, but much easier said than done. When Obama was a candidate for president in 2008, he promised to "take [China] to the mat" on the issues of trade and currency.
Fratto, who worked in the Bush administration Treasury Department and then in the White House, said that while Beijing's "undervalued currency causes a lot of problems for the global economy, the impact on American jobs is exceedingly minimal, and realigning the Chinese currency will not return jobs to the United States."
The Yuan has in fact appreciated about 30 percent since 2005, and still, Chinese exports have not slowed. Their trade surplus has continued to grow.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which has been notably rough on Romney this year, concluded this month that "the supposedly business savvy Mitt Romney" was "calling for unilateral trade duties against China to give his candidacy a populist edge."
Chocola said that Romney's apparent political opportunism was a discouraging sign for conservatives who want a nominee who is willing to take on tough challenges.
"It's a part of the problem that we have as a country right now. We do the easy things rather than the hard things, and the hard things need to be done," Chocola said. "If you're not willing to stand up and explain this, what are you going to do when it’s time to stand up and explain Social Security reform, which is a million times more difficult?"
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