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Trading jobs

April 19, 2006

EVEN IF PRESIDENT BUSH hasn't given up on reaching a comprehensive trade deal that would raise living standards in the developing world, open new markets for U.S. products and services and put a stop to wasteful government spending on farm subsidies, his appointment Tuesday of U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman as his new budget chief will signal to the rest of the world that he has.

Portman is being yanked from a critical role as the lead U.S. negotiator in World Trade Organization talks at a time when they have reached an extraordinarily sensitive stage. The WTO's Doha round of talks is teetering on a knife's edge, with an important deadline April 30 that almost certainly won't be met and a make-or-break deadline -- the expiration of Bush's fast-track authority on trade deals in June 2007 -- that looms ominously.

Portman, a respected former Republican congressman from Ohio, seems a sound choice to head up the Office of Management and Budget, but it is unfortunate that he is not appreciated in his current job. In announcing his new assignment Tuesday, Bush said Portman would "have a leading role on my economic team." At a time when the nation's trade relations with China, Europe and elsewhere are critical to the economy, we'd assumed Portman already played such a leading role.

Alas, although the office of top trade negotiator is a coveted job in most foreign governments, the post inexplicably lacks stature in Washington. Portman is moving on after only 11 months in a job that comes with a steep learning curve and requires the cultivation of negotiating counterparts and political savvy in selling deals to Congress. His proposed successor, Deputy Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who has been on the job since November, is experienced in trade law but lacks Portman's political experience.

Foreign governments will interpret Portman's job change as a signal that Washington considers the ongoing round of WTO talks hopelessly stalemated. That's unfortunate because, in the world of delicate trade negotiations, perceptions often become reality.

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