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To Sell His Trade Agenda, the President Turns to ... Nike?

Nike is great at making iconic commercials and catchy slogans, but it's not really great at making American manufacturing jobs.
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Nike is great at making iconic commercials and catchy slogans, but it's not really great at making American manufacturing jobs.

That's why the company's Beaverton, Oregon campus is a strange place for President Obama to make a forceful argument in favor of free trade agreements. Apparently, the president will attempt to persuade the nation that a few more dollars off cheap, imported footwear more than offsets downward pressure on wages, a skyrocketing trade deficit, and the loss of more than one-third of our manufacturing jobs that America has experienced since 2000.

Of all the global economic challenges that we face in America today, a scarcity of imported athletic shoes would rank somewhere near the very bottom. Nike is doing just fine.

But middle-class Americans are not.

I know I'm not alone in wishing that President Obama would devote much more of his energy, anger, and time imploring Congress to invest in rebuilding America's infrastructure. Or securing more training opportunities for industrial workers. Or holding China's feet to the fire for its persistent cheating on trade. Heck, the New England Patriots are playing -- pun intended -- small ball in the cheating arena compared to what China lays on American workers and businesses every day.

Instead, the president will use a global footwear company based in Oregon to extol the virtues of trade agreements. It's an odd choice. Virtually all of America's athletic footwear is made in countries like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. I don't expect a wave of footwear jobs to come back to our shores. But I also don't expect our government to actively put a company like New Balance, which still produces great running shoes in Maine and Massachusetts, at a competitive disadvantage by furthering empowering the importing competition.

I must disclose that I own nearly twenty pairs of American-made New Balance running shoes. I love that company. But I'm constantly afraid that the next pair of shoes I buy may be among the last pair the company is able to make in America. It will be horrible shame if trade policy contributes to that loss. And a new trade agreement that does nothing to address the constant problem of currency manipulation could do that.

This concern isn't limited to footwear. Currency manipulation puts any American manufacturing company that competes with mercantilist countries like China or Japan at an immediate disadvantage. And economists on the right, in the center, and on the left estimate that the practice has cost America millions of jobs over the years.

After he finishes selling the final stake in the heart of American athletic footwear production to a supportive crowd, perhaps President Obama can sit down with the industries and workers impacted by currency manipulation to figure out a path forward. A strong majority of voters would love that. But all he's offered has been stubborn resistance to this idea.

I also hope the president will find the opportunity to ask real Americans about these trade-offs: Is saving a little money on consumer imports worth the loss of jobs and downward pressure on American wages? He won't get the answer in Beaverton, but he may soon get it from Congress.