Fact Check: Has Obama 'not signed one new free-trade agreement'?

Story highlights

  • Mitt Romney says Obama "has not signed one new free-trade agreement"
  • An Obama spokeswoman calls that statement "absurd" and "inaccurate"
  • Obama signed a free trade deal in 2011, based on talks that began years earlier
  • The president re-negotiated pacts with Panama, Colombia and South Korea

Mitt Romney stated Monday that President Barack Obama "has not signed one new free-trade agreement in the past four years."

"I'll reverse that failure," the Republican presidential nominee said.

But is his assertion true?

The facts:

While he angered his allies in organized labor, Obama secured congressional approval of free-trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, and signed them in October 2011.

The term "new" in Romney's remarks concerning trade deals appears to be a reference to the fact that work on the three separate trade agreements began in 2007, when George W. Bush was president.

But it was Obama who re-negotiated the passage of the three deals with a Congress that has been identified more for its legislative gridlock, than its passage of such deals.

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"It takes a lot of capital to get trade deals through Congress, and it's particularly tough to do when the economy is weak," said Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship in Washington, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement on the day Obama signed the agreement saying "years of perseverance have been rewarded today as American job creators will have new opportunities to expand and hire as they access new markets abroad."

Obama re-negotiated aspects of the deal with South Korea to secure additional market access for U.S. auto manufacturers. He also added language into the deal with Colombia to protect the rights of Colombian workers, and addressed concerns with tax transparency in Panama.

Speaking with reporters Monday aboard Air Force One as the president traveled to California, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign challenged Romney's assertion that Obama had not signed a "new" free-trade agreement.

"That is not only absurd, it's inaccurate," said Jen Psaki, traveling press secretary for the Obama campaign. "He's basing it on an absurd premise that President Bush signed a couple of trade agreements, but the fact remains that the president renegotiated the trade agreements -- made them better for American workers, made them better for the American auto industry and the American meat industry -- and that's why we not only got them through Congress, but the president actually signed them into law."

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In addition to the three trade agreements, Obama has continued the Bush administration's effort to form a trans-Pacific free-trade zone, which would include up to 11 economies across the Asia-Pacific region. The fourteenth round of negotiations for the proposed zone took place last month in Leesburg, Virginia, with another round scheduled to take place in New Zealand in December.

The administration has said its goal in continuing the negotiations is to support the creation of jobs in the United States, and an increase in exports to a region that represents more than 40% of global trade.

The Obama administration is also exploring the possibility of free-trade talks with the 27-nation European Union. A decision on whether to launch such negotiations is expected soon.

An economist who follows trade policy, though, says that pursuing free-trade deals does not appear to be a top priority of the Obama administration.

Administration officials are "not very enthusiastic" about negotiating new free-trade agreements in the current political environment, according to Barry Bosworth, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

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With the expiration of fast-track trade negotiation authority in 2007, any agreement started by the administration would go through an amendments process, as opposed to a straight up-or-down vote in the Senate. In the absence of fast-track authority, no country would put their best offers forward in negotiations with the executive branch if that would only be amended as it traveled through both houses of Congress, said Bosworth.

"Neither side trusts the other when it comes to trade" in today's polarized political environment, so movement is not likely as long as the executive and legislative branches are controlled by different parties, added Bosworth.

Conclusion:

While President Obama continued trade agreements begun under the previous administration, it is not accurate to assert that Obama has not signed any free trade agreements when, in fact, he has done so with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.

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