Posted by: Joshua Green on February 8, 2012
Next week, President Obama is set to meet with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (above), who is in line to become the country’s next president. This is a fraught issue, not only because China looms so large in presidential and congressional elections, but because, as Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman explains in a great piece this morning, it puts Obama in the politically disadvantageous position of having to speak delicately about an important foreign competitor that his likely opponent, Mitt Romney, can tee off on (thus painting the president as a weak-kneed conciliator, etc.):
While Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has said he would slap sanctions on the Chinese for unfair trade practices and direct the Treasury Department to list China as a currency manipulator, Obama … is seeking China’s cooperation on broader global issues, including dealing with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
“Romney has the freedom to say those kinds of things,” said [Tony] Fratto. “The president is boxed in by the reality of the policy environment and the very complicated relationship that it’s his charge to maintain with China.”
Rhetoric about China regularly becomes heated during campaigns as candidates make appeals to middle-income Americans concerned about jobs being shipped to cheaper labor markets. The U.S. had a $273 billion trade deficit with China in 2010.
Castigating China has been an effective tactic for both parties, especially in areas of the country like the Midwest that have suffered disproportionately from the weak economy. While the example du jour of electoral China-bashing is this extremely controversial ad by Republican Pete Hoekstra, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has also aggressively invoked the image of a “Chinese menace,” such as in ads like this one and this one that it ran against Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania in 2010.
As Goldman notes, candidate Obama didn’t shy away from using China as a political weapon, famously calling President George W. Bush a “patsy” for not driving a harder bargain on trade talks. That’s a lot tougher for him to do — impossible, actually — now that he’s the one ultimately responsible for negotiations. That’s a difficulty the Romney campaign is happy to exploit.
But don’t expect a President Romney to live up to the tough talk if he makes it to the White House. As I wrote last November, there is a long, bipartisan history of presidential candidates thumping their chest about all they’ll do to set China straight. With minor exceptions, few have tried —and those that did try failed.
(Photographer: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)