One obvious way to increase exports is through free-trade agreements. But unions don't like them. No surprise then that for two years Obama has been sitting on three free-trade agreements - with Colombia, Panama and South Korea - already negotiated by his predecessor.
Under the pressure of dire economic conditions and of the consequences of stiffing three valued allies, Obama appeared ready to relent - only to put up a last-minute roadblock. He's demanding an expansion of Trade Adjustment Assistance - taxpayer money (beyond unemployment compensation) given to workers displaced by foreign competition, something denied to Americans rendered unemployed by domestic competition. It's an idea of dubious fairness but nicely designed to hold up ratification, while placing blame on Republican heartlessness rather than on political sabotage by Democrats beholden to unions for the millions they pour into Democratic coffers. (A deal reportedly may be near. But the years of delay have been costly.)
Nothing new here. In 2009, Obama pushed through a federally run, questionably legal, bankruptcy for the auto companies that robbed first-in-line creditors in order to bail out the United Auto Workers. Elsewhere, Delta Air Lines workers have voted four times to reject unionization. A federal agency, naturally, is investigating and, notes economist Irwin Stelzer, can order still another election in the hope that it yields the answer Obama's campaign team wants.
But Democratic fealty to unions does not stop there. Boeing has just completed a production facility in South Carolina for its new 787 Dreamliner. The National Labor Relations Board, stacked with Democrats - including one former union lawyer considered so partisan that he required a recess appointment after the Senate refused to confirm him - is trying to get the plant declared illegal. Why? Because by choosing right-to-work South Carolina, Boeing is accused of retaliating against its unionized Washington state workers for previous strikes.
In fact, Boeing has increased unionized employment by more than 2,000 at its Puget Sound plant. Moreover, the idea that a company in a unionized state can thus be prohibited from expanding into right-to-work states by a partisan regulatory body is quite insane. It violates the fundamental principle in a free-market economy that companies can move and build in response to market conditions, rather than administrative fiat. It jeopardizes the economic recovery, not only targeting America's single largest exporter in its attempt to compete with Airbus for a huge global market, but also threatening any other company that might think of expanding in any way displeasing to unions and their NLRB patrons.
Obama has been utterly silent in the Boeing affair. Which is understood by all as tacit approval. He's facing re-election next year. And Democrats need unions.
Of course, unions need Democrats - who deliver quite faithfully. In last year's nationwide "shellacking" of Democrats, for example, Wisconsin gave Republicans control of both legislative chambers and elected a Republican governor who made clear his intention to rein in public-sector union power.
When the Republicans tried to do as promised, Democrats, lacking the votes, tried to block it by every extra-parliamentary maneuver short of arson. State Senate Democrats fled Wisconsin to prevent a quorum. Demonstrators filled the statehouse for days and nights on end. And when the bill finally passed nonetheless, Dane County's Democratic district attorney went to court to have it thrown out on procedural grounds.
They found a pliant judge to invalidate the law. A famous victory, but short-lived. On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the ruling, upbraiding the judge for having "usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the Legislature." The law is reinstated.
Instructive cases all, demonstrating how those who lose popular support - Democrats at the polls, unions in their declining membership - can subvert and circumvent the popular will by judicial usurpation (Wisconsin) or administrative fiat (Boeing).
The Wisconsin maneuver ultimately failed, as likely will the assault on Boeing. In the interim, however, there is collateral damage - to U.S. exports, to the larger economy, to bankruptcy law, to free trade, to a constitutional system wherein the legislatures make the laws, rather than willful judges and partisan regulators.
But what are those when there are unions to appease and elections to win?
Charles Krauthammer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post.