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Bush’s Trade Chief Rated as Smart, Smooth Negotiator

by Jonathan Peter­son
LA Times

In nam­ing Robert B. Zoel­lick to be his chief trade advi­sor, Pres­i­dent-elect George W. Bush on Thurs­day hired a for­mer employ­ee of his father who is known for com­bin­ing brainy analy­sis with smooth nego­ti­at­ing skills.

Bush also made clear that the job of U.S. trade representative–contrary to ear­li­er reports–would not be down­grad­ed and would remain at the senior lev­el of his admin­is­tra­tion, which will inher­it an array of unfin­ished trade issues involv­ing Europe, Latin Amer­i­ca and Asia.

At the same time, some of the most incen­di­ary trade dis­putes await Zoel­lick at home: Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats remain deeply divid­ed over whether trade accords should con­tain labor and envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards, an issue that could flare up this year.

The cere­bral, bespec­ta­cled Zoel­lick, 47, known for his free-trade views, brings to his new job unusu­al men­tal inten­si­ty and years of expe­ri­ence in the over­lap­ping worlds of trade, eco­nom­ics and for­eign pol­i­cy.

“He is an intense­ly smart fel­low and he knows trade very, very well,” said Franklin J. Var­go, a vice pres­i­dent at the Nation­al Assn. of Man­u­fac­tur­ers. “He’s an excel­lent choice. We’re ecsta­t­ic.”

Zoel­lick also served as coun­selor to the Trea­sury sec­re­tary dur­ing the Ronald Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion, in addi­tion to oth­er posts. He is a pro­tege of James A. Bak­er III, the long­time Repub­li­can offi­cial. Both trav­eled to Flori­da to help George W. Bush dur­ing the recent bal­lot recount con­tro­ver­sy.

At the State Depart­ment, he worked on issues relat­ed to Ger­man reuni­fi­ca­tion and rep­re­sent­ed the pres­i­dent at meet­ings of the world’s sev­en wealth­i­est nations.

The deci­sion on U.S. trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive became cloud­ed in recent days by debate inside the Bush tran­si­tion team over whether the job should be down­grad­ed to sub-Cab­i­net rank. The move would have fit with the president-elect’s desire to super­vise a rel­a­tive­ly small team of top offi­cials while also enhanc­ing the role of Com­merce Sec­re­tary-des­ig­nate Don Evans, a Bush con­fi­dant who would be the only Cab­i­net voice on trade issues.

But the idea sparked a cho­rus of com­plaints from Con­gress, where mem­bers warned that it would weak­en the trade representative’s stature with oth­er nations and under­mine America’s abil­i­ty to com­plete trade accords.

Mem­bers of Con­gress expressed relief Thurs­day at Bush’s deci­sion to leave the trade post inside the Cab­i­net. Zoel­lick, whose appoint­ment will require con­fir­ma­tion by the Sen­ate, “is a free trad­er with a great grasp of the issues, and I appre­ci­ate the fact that his per­spec­tive will be at the Cab­i­net table,” declared Rep. David Dreier (R‑San Dimas), chair­man of the House Rules Com­mit­tee.

A table full of issues awaits him. Zoel­lick, who grew up near Chica­go and grad­u­at­ed magna cum laude from Har­vard Law School, will deal with long-run­ning tiffs between the Unit­ed States and Europe over Euro­pean bar­ri­ers on the import of bananas and hor­mone-fed beef. U.S. offi­cials also con­tend that an Air­bus super-jum­bo jet project is ben­e­fit­ing from gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies that are pro­hib­it­ed under glob­al trade rules.

More broad­ly, the Bush White House would like to com­plete a West­ern Hemi­sphere free-trade agree­ment, a task that, as a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, would require Con­gress to broad­en the presidency’s author­i­ty to com­plete trade deals that are immune from con­gres­sion­al tin­ker­ing.

Such a request, how­ev­er, is cer­tain to ignite the issue of whether labor stan­dards and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions should be part of trade deals, an approach that Bush gen­er­al­ly oppos­es but that has wide sup­port among Democ­rats.

On Thurs­day, Zoel­lick avoid­ed the touchy mat­ter, while con­ced­ing that “change isn’t easy” and promis­ing to lis­ten to the con­cerns of labor and work “very close­ly with Con­gress, both sides of the aisle, from day one.”

Zoel­lick, a recre­ation­al run­ner, is mar­ried and has no chil­dren.


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