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President Obama Sounds Like a Free Trader, So Why Are His Actions Contradicting His Words?

03/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Listening to President Barack Obama's speech Tuesday night to a joint session of Congress, I did a double take.

"The only way to fully restore America's economic strength is to make the long-term investments that will lead to new jobs, new industries, and a renewed ability to compete with the rest of the world," President Obama declared.

I could not agree with him more and was left wondering, has our president become a free trader?

Earlier in his address, the president had spoken eloquently about enabling America's creative and intellectual prowess to solve the economic crisis: "The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach," he began. "They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth."

Again, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Something strange is amiss. Since his inauguration, President Obama's words have not translated into the actions one would expect of someone who speaks so highly of wanting to renew the nation's ability to compete with its neighbors.

Indeed, President Obama has done little so far to show he really believes international trade raises living standards and creates jobs for everyone.

*In negotiating sessions, his administration has pushed for delays for new trade agreements with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would include a deals between the United States and New Zealand as well as with Brunei.

*The administration also backed down from a bilateral investment treaty with China during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to Asia.

*We are still unclear when the president's choice for U.S. trade representative, Ron Kirk, will appear before Congress for his confirmation hearing.

*To make matters worse for trade, President Obama allowed the "Buy American" provisions to be included in the stimulus bill he recently signed into law despite prophesies from the nation's top economists they would cause a trade war. Princeton University's Burton G. Malkiel warned in the Wall Street Journal: "Buy American provisions and other forms of protectionism will destroy jobs, not create them. They are an irresponsible and self-defeating response to a downturn in world economic activity."

In today's challenging economic environment, trade is a bright spot and opportunity for U.S. companies and consumers. We should be aggressively pursuing good trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and pass pending agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that Congress has let linger at the expense of U.S. business.

The Colombia free trade deal, as an example, would open a critical new market to the same American manufacturers that are suffering so badly as a result of the economic downturn. Colombian goods already cross our borders without tariffs. The agreement would simply correct this imbalance by removing tariffs on U.S. goods going into Colombia. Estimated to add $2.5 billion to the U.S. GDP, the measure creates a vibrant market for U.S. companies struggling to maintain profitability and jobs during a time of mounting economic uncertainty.

As Congress rushes to spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on untested bailouts, it would be absolutely unconscionable to overlook simple, cost-free measures like the Colombia trade agreement that could have an immediate positive impact on our ailing economy.

Delaying trade agreements sends a protectionist message to our neighbors and trading partners who are looking for global leadership from America. The impression that the United States is closing its borders for business is the wrong signal to send during a global recession.

Signals aside, trade is fundamental to the economic health of our country. More than 311,000 U.S. companies export goods to international buyers. Of those companies, 82 percent are small and medium-sized businesses with fewer than 500 employees, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. By many estimates, 25 percent of all U.S. jobs exist because of international trade.

America cannot compete with the rest of the world if her hands are tied behind her back. American companies will lose export opportunities with the world's consumers if they are forced to pay high tariffs that bilateral trading agreements would have eliminated.

We as a nation have become increasingly isolated in thoughts and deeds from our world neighbors. Whereas international trade was once understood as a linchpin to strong diplomacy and economic growth, it has now, by some, become a symbol for what has gone wrong with America. We must work to change this view.

There are positive signs. The lofty words implicitly praising trade in President Obama's address to Congress have been matched by his nominations of Ron Kirk as USTR and Gary Locke as Commerce Secretary, both respected professionals who understand and value trade. Moreover, the president's trip to Canada did appear to soothe the concerns that he wanted to re-open NAFTA.

President Bill Clinton used to remind us that only 5 percent of the world's consumers lived in the United States - we cannot expect to survive financially in the face of that statistic. And neither can the rest of the world's population.

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.