Obama Welcomes Campaign Season with China Trade Complaint

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President Barack Obama steps out of an historic house to speak at a campaign event at the Wolcott House Museum Complex July 5, 2012 in Maumee, Ohio.

Maumee, Ohio.

“It’s campaign season, again,” Barack Obama announced Thursday, after emerging in the sweltering summer heat behind hay bales and before a giant American flag draped across the roof of a nearby building. Then he pivoted to a policy decision his advisers say has nothing to do with the season.

“This morning, my Administration took new action to hold China accountable for unfair trading practices that harm American automakers,” Obama said. “Let me tell you something, Americans are not afraid to compete. We believe in competition. I believe in trade. I know this, Americans and American workers build better products than anybody else, so as long as we are competing on a fair playing field we will do just fine, but we are going to make sure competition is fair. That is part of what I believe.”

As the President said, it’s campaign season, again.

On the flight from Washington to Toledo, Ohio, on Air Force One, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney pointed out that the action would directly impact cars built in the swing state of Ohio. But he also said the timing of the announcement was unrelated to the trip. “This is the seventh such action that this administration has taken,” Carney said. “It simply can’t suddenly be a political action because it happens during the campaign.”

It was the third time in recent months that Obama has used the power of his office to grab headlines and shift the national debate. Earlier this month, he issued an executive order that provided work permits to many of the undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children. Prior to that, he announced that he personally favored the idea of gay marriage.

Romney, who’s on vacation in New Hampshire, had no public events scheduled for Thursday. His campaign, however, responded in a statement. Candidate Obama may talk a tough game on standing up to China and fighting for American manufacturing – but President Obama just hasn’t delivered,” wrote campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “On Day One, Mitt Romney will stand up to China and fight to protect American jobs.”

The President’s challenge targets Chinese anti-dumping tariffs, announced in December of 2011, that add to the cost of roughly 92,000 large-engine cars, worth about $3.3 billion, exported to China from the United States each year. The Chinese have argued that the U.S. bailout of the American auto industry in 2009 gave U.S cars an unfair trade advantage.

The challenge, which will be litigated in Switzerland at the World Trade Organization, is the latest action in years of tit for tat disagreements between the China and the United States. Months after the new Chinese tariffs, the Obama Administration announced stiff tariffs of 31% and higher for Chinese-made solar panels, alleging that the Chinese had dumped those panels on the U.S. market below market value after significant government subsidies.

But the impact of Obama’s announcement is likely to be more political than economic. On the campaign trail, Romney has repeatedly criticized Obama for taking a soft line on China, and two of Romney’s first three general election campaign ads boast about how he will stand up to China if he is elected.

In 2009, Romney criticized Obama for taking too hard a line against China, after Obama imposed tariffs on Chinese tires, after claiming that China was dumping them on U.S. markets. “President Obama’s action to defend American tire companies from foreign competition may make good politics by repaying unions for their support of his campaign, but it is decidedly bad for the nation and our workers. Protectionism stifles productivity,” Romney wrote in No Apology: The Case For American Greatness, which he has since referred to as blueprint for his 2012 campaign.

The World Trade Organization later ruled that Obama was legally justified in bringing the sanctions against Chinese tires.