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Who Is Katherine Tai, Biden's Pick For U.S. Trade Representative?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are a lot of well-known people heading into President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet, but one newcomer is bringing a fresh perspective to a job that's critical to the U.S. economy. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe has more about the first woman of color picked as the U.S.' top trade official.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: When Katherine Tai introduced herself to the world after being tapped as trade representative, she made sure to tell her family's story. Her parents were born in China and lived in Taiwan. They came to the U.S. in the 1960s and became citizens five years after Tai's birth.

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KATHERINE TAI: It wasn't until decades later that it occurred to me that I became an American before my parents, the very first American in our family.

RASCOE: That very American story resonated with California Congresswoman Judy Chu, especially because of the way President Trump dealt with trade. She says Tai's historic nomination is a rebuttal to some of President Trump's incendiary language about foreign countries.

JUDY CHU: It actually signals that the U.S. is a country that welcomes and promotes the talents and service of individuals of all origins.

RASCOE: Chu has worked closely with Tai, who was the top trade lawyer for House Democrats. Tai's backers say it's not just her Asian background that represents a turning of the page from the Trump era. Tai spent years in the Obama administration fighting trade complaints against China. She gained a reputation for her deep knowledge and skillful handling of complex cases. Trump has often dictated his trade policy via tweet, and China has been his greatest foe. The tensions with China won't go away when Joe Biden is president, but Biden says Tai will have a different approach.

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JOE BIDEN: She understands that we need a more strategic - to be considerably more strategic than we've been in how we trade. And that makes us all stronger.

RASCOE: Experts don't expect a quick change, even on Trump's signature tariffs. Tai will need to put that expertise to work on a trade war with China and manage relationships with allies ruffled by Trump's hardball tactics. Peter Allgeier worked on trade in the Bush administration. He says Tai can get it done.

PETER ALLGEIER: She speaks the same language of international trade. She knows that stuff. And I think she also has seen that working with allies greatly increases your leverage.

RASCOE: Allgeier says that Biden needs to build an international coalition to confront China on unfair trade practices. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici got to see Tai's diplomatic skills firsthand. They worked together on pushing for changes to Trump's trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

SUZANNE BONAMICI: There were times - because we were coming from very different backgrounds, there'd be raised voices and fists slammed on the table. And Katherine Tai remained unflappable.

RASCOE: And it's not just Democrats praising Tai. In a town that's deeply divided, Tai is the rare official who gets bipartisan respect.

CLETE WILLEMS: If you can find someone who says something negative about her, I will be shocked.

RASCOE: That's Clete Willems, who was one of the top trade officials in the Trump White House. Willems worked with Tai in her former role at the U.S. Trade Rep's office.

WILLEMS: Everyone loves her because she's just - she's a great person, and she's just a great combination of substance, you know, political acumen and personality.

RASCOE: Still, that love will be put to the test as she takes on looming challenges - for example, trade with the United Kingdom once it finalizes its Brexit from the European Union. That's one of the many areas she'll likely be questioned about when she faces senators for a confirmation hearing in the new year.

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARON VAN ETTEN SONG, "AFRAID OF NOTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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