America's New Trade Representative Has An Opportunity to Make Trade Sexy (Again?)

President Barack Obama’s former Harvard Law buddy and nomination to replace Ron Kirk as U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, was confirmed by a 93-4 vote in the Senate on Thursday. 

Froman, a Princeton alum wielding a Ph.D. from Oxford and a JD from Harvard, is well-known in the inner circles of Washington, D.C. politics and the outer circles of international finance and business, having served on both Clinton and Obama’s National Economic Council and the National Security Council staffs, as a former U.S. Department of Treasury chief of staff and political appointee, and as a managing director of CitiGroup, where he led the firm’s Emerging Market Strategy practice.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, Froman’s deep knowledge of U.S. economic policy and how it relates to foreign policy and national security makes him an ideal USTR. His experience as the assistant secretary of the treasury for Eurasia and the Middle East is icing on the cake and showcases his knowledge of global politics and experience working with senior officials in both like-minded and not-so-like-minded countries. 

For the adversarial crowd, Froman’s time spent studying law and working with Obama on the Harvard Law Review in the 1980s and as a volunteer adviser on Obama’s senatorial campaign makes for excellent fodder for cronyism accusations, but does nothing to detract from his credibility.

Proponents of Obama’s shiny new USTR include several senior U.S. government officials, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and heavy-hitting executives from America’s private sector. Many of them point to Froman’s private and public sector leadership experience and ability to come off as “tough, but not necessarily aggressive” as key to his success as the public face of U.S. trade policy. Specifically, they expect Froman to draw from his vast experience to present a strong front as the U.S. enters into formal, potentially game-changing negotiations with the European Union in July and with several other countries keen on setting up a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement to hedge against the rising trading power of China and sustain a competitive market along the Pacific Rim.

Critics of Obama’s USTR nomination, including Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), point to a lack of transparency in the inner workings of the agency of late and a suspicion that Froman will carry on this tradition. Warren joined three other senators in voting against Froman on Thursday to make a public statement calling for greater transparency in international trade matters, a call that the administration has publicly said it will answer.

For millenials, the position of USTR remains one of the least sexy Cabinet-level positions in the U.S. government and the choice of another older white gentleman to assume the position seems par for the course. But for the few of us keen on seeing whether Obama can deliver on his promise to boost U.S. exports significantly before he leaves office and elevate America’s international trade policy portfolio, Froman seems like a solid choice to tackle tough negotiations and cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with Congress.