Featuring the President as Free Trader: Television News Coverage of U.S. Trade Politics

By Rankin, David M. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Featuring the President as Free Trader: Television News Coverage of U.S. Trade Politics


Rankin, David M., Presidential Studies Quarterly


While still a candidate for president, Ronald Reagan publicly stated his symbolic vision of a free trade area across the North American continent "from the Yukon to the Yucatan." Reagan's rhetoric would be realized in successive administrations with the 1989 ratification of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the 1994 ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). U.S. and global trade were further liberalized with the emergence of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. In 2001 at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, George W. Bush continued visible presidential support for free and freer trade, advocating a Free Trade Area of the Americas from North to South America.

By the final year of the Reagan administration, there was also an increasingly contentious and visible political debate over trade (Cohen 2001; Tyson 1992). Congress passed the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act, the first Congress-initiated omnibus trade bill since before Smoot Hawley, and a bill that the Reagan White House had initially "denounced as pure protectionism" (Destler 1995, 91). With a more conflicted, politicized, and consequently more media-intensive trade policy environment, Destler (1995, 66) argued that "it put more pressure than ever on the executive branch, making open U.S. trade policies more dependent than ever on the latter's policy commitment and leadership skill." President Reagan expressed his strong support via the media for a U.S.-Canada FTA, a precursor to NAFTA and other free trade arrangements that would also enjoy the visible backing and media coverage of free trade campaigns by successive presidents. By 2002, multiple free trade policies had been initiated and advocated in the media spotlight by Democratic and Republican presidents, with agreements under consideration to extend U.S. participation in regional and global free trade.

In this article, I examine how the president has benefited from visible news coverage of trade, particularly on the most salient trade topics. I explore how national television news highlights the president's commitment to freer trade in forging the most positive relationships with trade competitors, if not threats. The president's reported stance as a consistent supporter of free trade is a critical element of reporting the president's role in developing and maintaining trade relations and agreements deemed to be in the national interest. Such media attention, I argue, provides the president with a visible mediated advantage in confronting political opposition by reporting in a relatively more positive tone on the president's consistent rhetorical support for free and freer trade relations, agreements, and policy.

Before more recent visible debate and conflict over trade policy, trade had been traditionally viewed as a backroom policy-making process with little media and public attention (Bauer, Pool, and Dexter 1972; Schattschneider 1935). The relative invisibility of trade politics on the media circuit, it has also been argued, provided Congress and interest groups with a greater advantage in competition with the president for particularistic measures or policies on trade affecting domestic industries and labor (Baldwin 1985; Conybeare 1991; Pincus 1977). Verdier (1994) argues that when trade policy making has been less visible and less salient, partisan politics, interest groups, and congressional members have played a stronger role in influencing policy direction and in many ways demanding greater protectionist measures. Conversely, Verdier (1994) contends that, when trade is more visible and salient, the president assumes the dominant rhetorical role in speaking for the national interest and above partisan politics, in which free and freer trade is framed by the president as the solution to foreign economic challenges and even threats.

Studies have shown the advantage given to the president, at least in terms of media coverage and thus public visibility, on the most salient policy issues (Farnsworth and Lichter 2004; Han 2001; Kernell 1997).

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