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As the World Turns: U.S. Trade Point Man Faces Global Tests

USTR Rob Portman has brought an adventurous spirit, a Midwestern work ethic and political savvy to his Cabinet-level post.

WASHINGTON — In Zhongxian, China, more than 20 years ago, Rob Portman was thwarted in one of his first encounters with Chinese bureaucracy.

Portman, the future Bush administration trade chief, and a college roommate were trying to navigate the Yangtze River in a 50-pound kayak. The police chief said the boat was too small for the river, even after a display of their kayaking skills, and told them to take a ferry to the next town. They did, but subsequently snuck onto the river at night.

That persistence, along with a Midwestern work ethic and an ability to find common political ground, helped Portman, 49, ascend to President Bush’s cabinet in May as U.S. Trade Representative after six terms as a House member from Ohio, during which he became part of the GOP leadership.

Now, after using his deal-making skills to push the Central American Free Trade Agreement through the House by two votes, Portman is facing formidable challenges. He is overseeing stalled U.S. negotiations with China to regulate surging apparel imports, and trying to get back on track far-reaching and intricate World Trade Organization talks to reduce global tariffs.

The economic and political stakes are high for an administration that is struggling with a $617 billion trade deficit but continues to view free trade as a tool to promote business, alleviate global poverty and help protect U.S. borders.

“He’s shown he can work behind the scenes. His test is going to be, can he project vision and leadership on a global stage?” said Dan Griswold, director of the center for trade policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. “Rob Portman will need to show that he’s up to the task in hard negotiations with the Europeans and Japanese over farm subsidies and the Chinese over intellectual property.”

Congress is urging the administration to get tough with China for what many lawmakers see as its unfair trading practices, including an undervalued currency that makes U.S.-made goods less competitive. At least 31 U.S. textile plants have closed this year, and industry trade groups place much of the blame on China. Retailers counter that Chinese apparel and textile imports, which surged 53.4 percent to $20.6 billion for the year ending in August, boost their profits and slash prices for consumers.

This story first appeared in the October 25, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The fractious trade connection between the U.S. and China is at a key juncture, with profound implications for the global economy.

“The relationship is improving, but when you have a $200 billion trade deficit [with China], which is roughly where we are this year, maybe even higher, we’re going to continue to have issues,” Portman said in an interview. “Long term, we need to work out an economic relationship where we have a more healthy exchange of imports and exports and where there’s not this mutual dependency back and forth.”

China relies on the U.S. as a market for its goods, while the U.S. has been borrowing money from China, which has gathered a huge stockpile of U.S. federal bonds.

The administration and Congress have been pushing China to reform a number of its policies.

“Until we can resolve some of those issues, intellectual property or market access, the currency issue, I think it’s tough to have the kind of healthy relationship we ought to have,” Portman said.

Portman was graduated from Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan Law School and watched his father build a successful forklift distributorship in Ohio.

“I started my career as a trade lawyer,” Portman said. “I was here [in Washington] at the Patton Boggs law firm as the lowly associate on antidumping and countervailing duty cases, so it’s like I’m reliving some of my past.”

The trade chief, who took over from Robert Zoellick, now deputy secretary of state, is also working closely with his former House colleagues.

“He reaches out, he tries to listen and get broad support for issues,” said Rep. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), who served with Portman on the House Ways and Means Committee. “It’s a true process that’s open, that leads to, usually, results.”

That seems to have been the case with CAFTA, which drew fire from some textile firms worried about losing jobs to Central America and from labor advocates who said the pact’s worker-rights provisions were weak and emblematic of the administration’s pro-corporate stance.

“Rob was the crucial element in my decision to vote for CAFTA because I knew that I could trust him,” said Rep. Bob Inglis (R., S.C.), who received assurances from Portman that U.S. textile interests would be protected.

The CAFTA fight wasn’t one Portman chose, but it was one he embraced.

“We’re under great stress and challenge on the manufacturing side,” Portman said. “That’s why we need to be more creative, that’s why CAFTA…was just an incredible opportunity to partner with lower-wage countries.”

Portman was well-known within the administration when he was nominated to the trade representative post.  He and Bush met at the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, where Portman was a young delegate. He remembers Bush, who is fond of nicknames and now calls him “Robby Bobby,” as relaxed and friendly, wearing cowboy boots and holding a cigar. 

Portman worked in the White House as director of the office of legislative affairs and associate counsel to the president during the administration of George H.W. Bush.

“I feel like I really owe my political career to his father,” he said.

Dick Cheney practiced with Portman before his vice presidential debates in 2000 and 2004 and said he “makes a pretty good Joe Lieberman and John Edwards…He was tougher than either one of them.”

The ability to understand an opposing view, along with a supportive White House, should help Portman as he stretches out into the role of chief U.S. trade advocate. If he succeeds, the post might be a prelude to seeking higher elective office.

“He’s been mentioned frequently for Ohio governor and senator, and that would be the next logical step for him,” said Larry Sabato, executive director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “He’s an articulate, very professional individual. He’s a real Bushie. He’s kind of buttoned down and doesn’t like to pop off and try to grab headlines.”

Taking the cabinet-level job was a smart political move because “he’s getting international experience, which is very difficult for a domestic politician to secure,” Sabato said.

The politics of global trade make the job of trade representative a trial by fire. After productive talks at the end of September, the latest round of negotiations for a deal to regulate Chinese imports stalled.

“We were not able to come up with an agreement, but it’s not for lack of trying or lack of effort or lack of focus on our part,” Portman said during a conference call with reporters.

“We had a very generous proposal for the Chinese, but it was not generous enough for them,” he said. “Frankly, I’m disappointed. I was willing and ready to fly the 22 hours to Beijing and the 22 hours back in order to finalize it, but we’ve not been able to see eye to eye on the some of the final issues….I will continue to walk away from a deal if it’s not a good deal.”

Portman had been in Europe trying to jump-start the WTO Doha trade talks, which could reorder international business by eliminating trade barriers and boosting profits for multinational companies. Bush emphasized the importance of the effort in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month.

“We must tear down the walls that separate the developed and developing worlds,” Bush said. “We need to give the citizens of the poorest nations the same ability to access the world economy that the people of wealthy nations have.”

Much of Portman’s early first-hand knowledge of the developing world was gained as he maneuvered his kayak on the 1984 trip to China, which was just opening to Westerners, and on a six-month, 1,900-mile journey with friends on the Rio Grande River in 1977.

“I love being on the water,’’ he said. “I find it relaxing. I find it reinvigorating, and those trips were adventure trips.”

Portman, who was an anthropology student at Dartmouth with an interest in immigration, crossed paths during the Rio Grande journey with smugglers and border jumpers, recalled Dan Reicher, who accompanied Portman in China and on the Rio Grande.

“The outdoors is a good test bed for all sorts of skills that you need later in life — diplomacy, endurance, perception, creativity,” said Reicher.

“I suspect it [the Rio Grande trip] was one of the most formative experiences of his early adult life,” added Reicher, now president of New Energy Capital, a renewable energy firm in New England. Reicher was an assistant secretary at the Energy Department in the Clinton administration.

Portman also credits the Rio Grande journey with leading him to work on immigration issues, which ultimately helped his rise in Washington.

“He was still working out his own politics at this time, kind of figuring out where he was on this political spectrum, and that evolved over time with his Republican roots in Ohio and his Democrat friends in college and law school,’’ Reicher said. “He was kind of finding his way.”

Politically speaking, Portman found his way back home. His Congressional voting record mirrors the conservative sensibilities of Ohio’s second district, in the southern part of the state.

Portman voted against partial-birth abortion except to save the mother’s life, supported a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and came down on the side of school prayer, according to the non-partisan ActiVote America. He also supported the war in Iraq and the president’s tax cuts.

Portman, who is polite but quick on his feet at news conferences, seems to be a natural at politics.

“He always impressed me as a kid who was just enjoying what he was doing,” said Joe Hofmeister, who taught Portman in statistics and probability at the Cincinnati Country Day School, a private institution that one of Portman’s sons now attends. “He always had a grin on his face and always had a little mischief underneath.”

Even some political opponents have a soft spot for him.

“There’s nobody any nicer than him,” said Charles Sanders, the former Democratic mayor of Waynesville, Ohio, who unsuccessfully ran against Portman four times. “You can’t take away from people what they really are. His politics might be a little flawed, they are flawed…but as far as being a personable kind of person, I have no problem with him.”

During one of their contests, Portman took time from an event he was attending with his family to help Sanders get his church put on a national historic registry.

Portman has a life outside the Beltway in the Cincinnati suburb of Terrace Park, where he returns to his wife, Jane, and their children, Jed, Will and Sally.

He has nurtured a lifelong fascination with the Shakers, the most enduring of the many collectivist societies established in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries, who emphasize function and simplicity in their products and designs. This culminated in a book Portman cowrote called “Wisdom’s Paradise: The Forgotten Shakers of Union Village” (Orange Frazer Press).

Portman’s grandparents collected finely crafted Shaker furniture at their inn, the Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Ohio, which the family still owns.

In Terrace Park, far removed from Washington’s fishbowl, Portman finds comfort in traditions.

“They have a parade on the Fourth of July and the kids decorate their bikes with crepe paper,” said Michael Hirschfeld, executive committee chairman of Graydon, Head & Ritchey, a Cincinnati law firm where Portman worked. “He’s kind of the Norman Rockwell poster child of the Midwest.”

The Fiber Price Sheet
The last Tuesday of every month, WWD publishes the current, month-ago and year-ago fiber prices. Prices listed reflect the cost of one pound of fiber or, in the case of crude oil, one barrel.
Fiber Price on
10/24/05*
Price on
9/26/2005
Price on
10/25/2004
Cotton 51.76 cents 49.35 cents 53.50 cents
Wool $2.28 $2.38 $2.50
Polyester staple 82 cents 69 cents 63 cents
Polyester filament 83 cents 72 cents 63 cents
September Synthetic PPI 112.7 112.9 107.1
Crude Oil $60.63 $64.19 $55.17
*The current cotton price is the September average on fiber being delivered to Southeastern region mills, according to Agricultural Marketing Services/USDA. The wool price is based on the average price for the week ended Oct. 21 of 11 different thicknesses of fiber, ranging from 15 microns to 30 microns, according to The Woolmark Co. Information on polyester pricing is provided by the consulting firm DeWitt & Co. The synthetic-fiber producer index, or PPI, is compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and reflects the overall change in all synthetic-fiber prices. It is not a price in dollars but a measurement of how prices have changed since 1982, which had a PPI of 100. Oil prices reflect last week’s closing price on the New York Mercantile Exchange of future contracts for light, sweet crude oil to be delivered next month.