Gene Sperling, director of President Barack Obama's National Economic Council, defended the administration's fiscal policies Tuesday in a Pittsburgh appearance, while rejecting Republican criticism that its new trade action against China reflected an election-year conversion.
While campaigning Monday in Ohio, Mr. Obama announced the filing of a complaint with the World Trade Organization charging that Beijing was improperly subsidizing the export of auto parts. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney contended the action was a political response to his frequent criticisms that the administration needed to take a tougher line against China in general.
In an interview after a Carnegie Mellon University speech sketching the nation's overall economic challenges, Mr. Sperling dismissed the suggestion of political motivation. "Taking a tougher position on China on manufacturing and defending our auto industry has been a part of the Obama economic strategy since Day One," he said.
Mr. Sperling, who played a similar role as chief economic adviser in the Clinton administration, pointed to an earlier trade complaint against a surge in tire exports from China, filed in 2009, as evidence of the Obama administration's vigilance on trade issues, and he argued further that the Bush administration had chosen not to take similar complaints to the WTO.
"Four different times [the Bush administration] had an opportunity to use that tool and rejected it," he said. " ... [T]he record is we have now brought more WTO cases against China in 3 1/2 years than the previous administration did in eight years."
Earlier, in a speech to about 200 CMU students and faculty members, Mr. Sperling gave a capsule history of the Obama fiscal record followed by a critique of Republican spending plans.
He said the administration took office amid the related challenges of reviving a wounded economy in the short term, while beginning to craft a longer-term plan to curb the nation's deficit and entitlement spending. And he said the administration hoped to balance those goals with spending that invests in areas such as job training and infrastructure improvements.
Mr. Sperling argued that current White House spending plans pared discretionary domestic spending to a lower level, as a percentage of gross domestic product, that any budget since the Eisenhower administration.
The spending levels of the budget passed by the Republican House would lower domestic spending to unacceptable levels, he said, adding, "I promise you the harshness of that would not be something we could easily tolerate as a country."
Mr. Sperling also weighed in against critics of the administration's hastily crafted and enacted stimulus package. At "a time of extraordinary contraction" in the economy, he said, amid "a lack of demand [that] ... could have spiraled into a much worse situation," the recovery legislation was passed just 23 days after Mr. Obama took the oath of office.
While Republicans, including Mr. Romney, dismiss the Recovery Act as ineffectual, Mr. Sperling and the administration maintain that it averted significantly worse economic conditions -- "a potential free-fall" is how he put it Tuesday.
Politics Editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.