Right man, right place, right time

Mike Froman’s nomination to be U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is a good thing. The depth and breadth of his experience as well as his demonstrated ability to close deals all bode well for a successful tenure in a position that could use a few victories. It also suggests the president has become serious about trade – he would not have moved his top international economic adviser across the street if he didn’t want to accomplish anything. And a significant agenda awaits him:  two of the most significant trade negotiations in our history: the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). A USTR who can get both of those done will be one of the most successful in our history.

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That’s a short move in distance – maybe a hundred yards – but a long one in its implications. For Froman, it means moving from an inside job to an outside job and making sure he doesn’t get relegated to making speeches around the country like many Cabinet members. For the president, it will mean finding a replacement to serve on the National Security Council staff and developing a relationship with him or her – not the easiest thing for someone not known for bringing new talent into the White House.

This deal may have been done with the mutual expectation that Froman can continue to play at least part of his old role while also taking on his new one. In my experience, that won’t work. It rarely has in the past. The time and travel demands and bureaucratic rigidities in the system simply make it impossible to do both jobs well. Some balls will get dropped.

The other good news in this nomination is that confirmation is likely to be fairly smooth, with one footnote. Froman is widely respected on Capitol Hill and elsewhere; early reaction has been positive; and it is hard to imagine anyone questioning his credentials or wanting to slow-walk a process when key negotiations are hopefully finishing (TPP) or starting up (TTIP).

One possible catch is hostage-taking – a senator holding up the nomination over a specific issue, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) did during the confirmation process for Energy secretary.  Having been a victim of that myself, I can say the practice is not only alive and well but growing. Fortunately, it is hard to sustain a hold on a Cabinet nominee (it is those of us in the lesser ranks who linger in confirmation purgatory), and I expect it to be done in time for the TTIP launch in June. And, with the agenda we now have before us on trade policy, that would indeed be a good thing.


Reinsch is president of the National Foreign Trade Council.