Increasing frustration with a stalled trade agenda and dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden’s trade chief, Katherine Tai, are driving a significant number of senior trade officials to resign, as revealed by four current and former administration officials privy to the departures.
Among those exiting are key figures, such as the White House’s representative on international economics and two of the three deputy U.S. trade representatives tasked with implementing the Biden administration’s trade policy centered around workers.
The wave of departures follows setbacks in Biden’s trade agenda throughout 2023, including the failure to secure a green steel and aluminum deal with the European Union and the withdrawal from trade talks embedded in the U.S.-crafted Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
The administration grapples with internal divisions on crucial trade policy decisions, including the regulation of digital information globally.
These challenges, coupled with the realization that little progress is likely during an election year shadowed by former President Donald Trump’s focus on trade, have led some officials to choose to leave.
Compounding the frustration is discontent with Tai’s management practices, with critics asserting that she has not fostered enough goodwill with other administration members, causing conflicts, especially regarding digital trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization.
The departures have raised questions about the future of the trade agenda, according to Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, who oversees trade policy and personnel. Critics blame Tai, arguing that her aggressive pursuit of worker-friendly trade policies has strained relationships within the administration.
Some insiders suggest that Tai’s management style, described as tough, has contributed to low morale, creating conflicts with other agencies.
While Biden’s team contends that each departing official had planned their exit for months and that global economic efforts will continue unaffected, concerns persist about the impact on the administration’s ability to advance its trade goals.
Tai’s allies dismiss criticism of her management style, attributing it to disagreements with her pursuit of employee-centered trade policies rather than her leadership approach.
The departing officials, many of whom have young children and have already made significant progress on economic rule reforms, have served for several years. A spokesperson for the trade representative’s office emphasized Ambassador Tai has confidence in her team to deliver on the president’s international economic agenda.
Amid these developments, there is growing recognition that Biden’s trade agenda could pose a political liability in the upcoming election year, with concerns that Trump may exploit trade issues, as he did in 2016, presenting protectionist moves as beneficial for American workers.
Despite Biden’s efforts to reshape global trade rules under a “worker-centered” policy, Democrats fear backlash, particularly in battleground states.
The Biden administration’s inability to match Trump’s accomplishments on trade, including labor and environmental standards in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, has frustrated lawmakers like Wyden and Sen. Sherrod Brown. They emphasize the need for proposals that open up business markets while ensuring robust enforcement.
Despite the discontent, sources close to Tai assert that she retains the president’s confidence and is not planning to depart before the term concludes. However, efforts to fill the vacancies in the trade team are facing challenges.
The nomination of Nelson Cunningham as deputy trade representative has encountered skepticism from Wyden and opposition from other senior Democrats, who fear Cunningham may prioritize corporate interests over workers.
Lawmakers planning to run on White House trade policies vow to maintain pressure on the administration not to retreat further, underscoring their commitment to pushing for policies that prioritize workers and economic fairness.