The Australian

By Marc Palen

US President Barack Obama submitted free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea for congressional approval last week - but at a cost. Any agreement is conditional on extending a protectionist program that provides government assistance to US workers who lose their jobs due to foreign competition. The legislation coincides with a proposed tariff bill aimed at China, which the US Senate will probably pass tomorrow.

Which begs the question: is Barack Obama the next Herbert Hoover, the protectionist US president blamed for making the Great Depression even greater?

Comparisons between the two presidents have been made before: both men entered office amid a global economic crisis, both appeared more than qualified to handle it, but neither proved radical enough to achieve their progressive visions.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has dubbed the President "Barack Herbert Hoover Obama".

But Obama and Hoover share another trait: protectionism.

Economists may have reached a consensus that free trade offers more benefits than costs, but that does not necessarily resonate with Middle America.

As far back as October 2007 - even before the global recession was in full swing - Republican voters were expressing their broadening resistance to globalisation. By a margin of almost two to one, Republican voters thought free trade was bad for the US economy. Republican pollster Neil Newhouse acknowledges it is now a lot harder to sell the free-trade message to Republicans.

Advocacy for protectionism is rapidly becoming bipartisan, and both parties have historically backed federal subsidisation of US agribusiness - a more subtle brand of protectionism that undercuts US foreign policy and global markets.

Obama raised conservative eyebrows during the 2008 presidential campaign when he criticised NAFTA, the free trade agreement signed by Canada, Mexico and the US in 1993. So did then senator Hillary Clinton, who claimed to have been a NAFTA critic "from the very beginning".

Obama's chief of staff, William Daley, warns that "free traders and pure market believers" need to overcome their dogmatism if they want the US to dig itself out of the present economic crisis.

So what about Obama's support for the pending free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama? For one thing, these preferential deals have many protectionist elements through their strengthening of patent and copyright protections, and hardly deserve the "free trade" label.

For different reasons, Democrats in congress have long expressed their opposition to the bills, as they threaten US jobs and as a result are enormously unpopular with the trade unions.

The proposed trade agreements had barely reached the house floor last week when the US Senate proposed a tariff bill authorising Washington to impose sweeping import duties on Chinese goods in retaliation for Beijing's undervaluation of the Chinese currency. Outraged, the Chinese have warned that a trade war will ensue.

While Obama and congress dabble in protectionism and dawdle on trade agreements, the world is watching.

The protectionist "Buy American" aspects of Obama's new American Jobs Act, for example, have already provoked a frustrated response from Canada's International Trade Minister, Ed Fast, who insists: "History has shown protectionist measures stall growth and kill jobs."

In Australia, while denying the federal government is "taking a step back from our firm belief in open markets", Julia Gillard is set to implement a protectionist "Buy Australian" scheme, and independent senator Nick Xenophon is suggesting that Canberra should institute its own punishing duties against Chinese imports, mirroring the pending US tariff proposal.

The international implications of US protectionist proclivities therefore raise serious questions. Will US protectionism spark a global game of "prisoner's dilemma", with country after country enacting retaliatory tariffs as happened following the passage of Hoover's extreme Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930?

And, if Obama is indeed playing the role of Hoover amid the continuing global economic crisis, is there an FDR ready to succeed him?

Marc-William Palen is a postdoctoral fellow at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney.