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Bush's trade nominee has tough task ahead

Susan Schwab's first challenge as President Bush's new trade chief is to prove her political dexterity and quell whispers the United States has given up on world trade talks, experts say.
/ Source: Reuters

Susan Schwab's first challenge as President Bush's new trade chief is to prove her political dexterity and quell whispers the United States has given up on world trade talks, experts say.

Schwab, now the deputy USTR for Europe, the Middle East and Asia, was thrust into the spotlight last week when Bush tapped her to replace U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, a popular former congressman who the president said would be moving to the White House to become his budget director.

The move, coming just two weeks before an important April 30 deadline in world trade talks, cast doubt on continued U.S. commitment to those negotiations, although Portman insisted Schwab could take over without missing a beat.

Criticism of the change at the top reached a crescendo Friday, when the New York Times ran an editorial comparing Schwab unfavorably to Portman and the three previous U.S. trade representatives -- Robert Zoellick, who is now deputy secretary of State, and Mickey Kantor and Charlene Barshefsky, who both served under President Bill Clinton.

"Ms. Schwab is a competent technocrat ... (who) doesn't have Portman's congressional credentials, or Mr. Kantor's access to the president. Nor does she have Ms. Barshefsky's trade reputation or Mr. Zoellick's international clout," the Times said. "In the end, the most important byproduct of President Bush's much-discussed White House shake-up may be the torpedoing of any real progress" in world trade talks.

Ed Gresser, trade director for the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank that backs the White House on most trade initiatives, says Bush should have waited until at least the April 30 deadline had passed to announce the administration changes.

Burden of proof
"I think the reaction is not so much to Schwab herself, but why Portman chose this moment to jump ship," Gresser said. "The administration has a pretty big burden of proof to the Europeans and the Japanese and the Chinese and the Indians and the Brazilians and the Australians and so on that this isn't a backing away."

Just a few days after Bush announced Schwab's nomination, WTO negotiators in Geneva formally acknowledged they would miss the April 30 deadline for agreeing on formulas for cutting domestic farm subsidies and agricultural and manufactured good tariffs -- two issues at the core of the world trade talks.

But the main reason the deadline will be missed is that "the European Union and others haven't been ready to negotiate seriously," said Dan Griswold, trade policy director at the Cato Institute, which is an advocate for free trade.

Griswold called the Times editorial "unfairly tough," while others called it cheesy and over-the-top.

Both Schwab and Portman need Senate approval for their new jobs. The vote on the nominations have not yet been scheduled.

Schwab, who began her government career in the late 1970s as an agricultural trade negotiator, has worked on trade issues for much of her professional life. She also spent eight years on Capitol Hill helping craft major trade legislation during the 1980s before moving to the Commerce Department, where she headed the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service.

During the 1990s, Schwab was director of corporate business development for Motorola and later dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. Before rejoining USTR five months ago, she was a vice chancellor at Maryland.

Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, said he believed Schwab was being underestimated.

While Schwab may not have Portman's political gifts, she has great technical expertise and is a skilled negotiator, Cohen said. And like Barshefsky before her, she can use those assets to increase her political clout, he said.

Also, if anything, Bush is increasing the number of trade advocates in the White House, Cohen said. Not only has Bush pulled in Portman, but Josh Bolten, the new White House chief of staff, is a former USTR general counsel, he said.