Both an Obama and a Romney administration would pursue regional trade talks with the approximately same vigor and would face the same obstacles. Barack Obama is the first president since the passage of the Trade Act of 1974 not to obtain “fast-track” authority (a.k.a., trade promotion authority) from Congress to facilitate the passage of trade agreements. The expected narrowing of the Republican majority in the House and the Democratic majority in the Senate makes passage of fast-track authority in the next four years even more challenging than in the previous four. Progress on trade liberalization will still be possible, however. The Obama administration was able to move free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea through Congress using normal legislative procedures. These agreements were actually holdovers for which the Bush administration was unable to secure passage. Obama was more judicious during his first term than his predecessor in opening new trade talks. The Obama administration has demonstrated a preference for regional over bilateral agreements. The next administration will continue to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade area begun by Obama and is likely to advance talks to move a Transatlantic Economic Partnership (TEP) from the pre-negotiation to negotiation phase.
Fixing the machinery for multilateral trade negotiations will also be on the agenda of the next administration, but it will remain a secondary concern. To be sure, the deadlocked Doha Development Agenda has been an embarrassment for all World Trade Organization members, but no major player has been willing to expend the political capital required to break the impasse. The Romney campaign has offered nothing new or innovative regarding the WTO. Its approach would most likely differ little from that of a second Obama administration.
In summary, American economic policy is a study in contrasts. Partisan confrontation over domestic economic policy is going to get even more heated immediately after the November election, but it is likely that gridlock will come to an end regardless of who is the next president. Each outcome contains risks. President Obama would take the country back toward fiscal balance, but at the risk of a second crippling recession. Governor Romney may avoid an economic downturn but offers little prospect of closing the budget gap. Foreign economic policy, however, is unlikely to change much in coming years.