The president's claim that his restrictions would only further free trade falls flat. Here's why.
In a way, he's saying that less trade in some instances might mean more trade.
He laid out his reasoning after announcing last week that he placed a 35 percent tariff on imports of vehicle tires from China.
President Obama, of course, had other reasons for this action.
Tire imports from China have surged 10-fold from 2000 to 2008. The resulting decline in US-based tiremaking has forced layoffs of thousands of workers, many of them in the United Steelworkers union – a key political supporter of Obama in the healthcare debate.
But politics or jobs wasn't the main reason that Obama gave for his action.
He said he wants to "further expand trade" by showing the world that the US will credibly enforce its own trade rules. One of those rules is a specific legal provision that allows a president to block surges in Chinese imports if they simply disrupt an American industry.
Obama's reasoning in furthering trade through tariffs may sound like doublespeak, but that provision, known as Section 421 of the Trade Act, was actually agreed to by China when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.
With a population that is a quarter of humanity, China can easily become an elephant in trade, overwhelming particular markets with a flood of inexpensive exports. That is even more true because China, in its race to industrialize, took a cue from Japan and has focused on exports for job growth. (In its complaint about the US tariff, China said it was unfair for Obama to worry about US jobs while not also being concerned about unemployment in China.)
Unlike Obama, the Bush administration rejected several appeals to impose tariffs on Chinese import surges, continuing an American tendency to err on the side of free trade. Obama now says such nonaction hurts trade rather than helps it. (In fact, his aides say a president is required by Section 421 to take action – a claim that is widely disputed.)