WASHINGTON -- Not many new Cabinet members take office with a deadline of six weeks or so to succeed or fail in their jobs. But that was what Susan C. Schwab faced yesterday when she was sworn in as the new U.S. trade representative.
President Bush praised his new envoy as "a good, hard negotiator." Still, she faces long odds as trade diplomats struggle to salvage a global accord that the Bush administration hopes will be one of its signal economic achievements.
But if trade officials are unable to resolve their fundamental differences by the time of a critical meeting in late July, the failure to achieve a deal could prove a huge disappointment for the White House.
The tight time limit derives from the congressional authority for the United States to negotiate a trade-expanding agreement under the so-called Doha round, named after the city in Qatar where talks began, and then get an up-or-down legislative vote. The authority expires in mid-2007, and it is doubtful that Congress can approve any deal unless the basic framework is established by the middle of this year.
"We are at a critical juncture in a once-in-generation multilateral negotiation," Schwab said in an interview. "We're getting to the point in the Doha negotiations where some very tough decisions have to be made."
Schwab, of Annapolis, is certainly prepared to step into the role. She was a deputy trade representative under Rob Portman, the former Ohio representative who was named director of the Office of Management and Budget in April. At age 51, she has been involved in trade issues in government, business and the academic community all of her career, but is not a well-known figure outside that world.
But some critics say the appointment of Schwab - succeeding a recognized power hitter with close ties on Capitol Hill - was a sign that the Bush administration was scaling back its hopes for a successful Doha negotiation.
"In my judgment, she's first class," said Bill Frenzel, a former Republican representative from Minnesota and now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. "But she succeeds a very popular and active trade representative whisked out of his job. I think everyone agrees that the chances of a successful Doha round seem quite limited."
Schwab, not surprisingly, says she sees it differently and appears undaunted by the suggestions that she is not up to the job.
"The only way you can respond to those questions is by exceeding expectations," she said. "The joy comes in proving the critics wrong."
Also, she said, when the time comes to lobby Congress on trade, she will have the help of Portman and Joshua B. Bolten, White House chief of staff, who also has a trade background.
Another heavy hitter, Robert B. Zoellick, the former trade representative who is now deputy secretary of state, also is prepared to step up to bat.
To be sure, the Bush administration has not invested all its trade policy in a successful Doha round, which involves trying to get a multilateral agreement among 147 countries. Its trade record also rests on more than a dozen bilateral agreements so far, and more in the offing, with countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
In addition, the administration has tried to win over congressional critics of freer trade by using the World Trade Organization and other legal avenues to press countries to drop what Washington has charged are illegal or unfair practices keeping out American goods and services.
European barriers are a particular anathema to American farmers, and their reservations about any trade deal would doom it on Capitol Hill. Yet there is no sign of bridging the impasse between the Europeans and the United States on the agriculture issue.
Schwab said that without a deal on agriculture, the progress that has been made on opening doors to American services, particularly financial, would go for naught, as would what little progress had been achieved in manufactured goods.
If the United States has a strategy to change European thinking, she said, it is to enlist India, Brazil, China and other fast-developing countries to pressure the Europeans. She also has been meeting with European business associations that would gain from a trade deal.
Finally, Schwab said, Bush has lobbied Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to press President Jacques Chirac of France to ease his opposition to lower farm barriers.
But Peter Mandelson, the chief European Union trade negotiator and a friend of Blair, has charged that it is the United States that is intransigent.
Mandelson has called the U.S. demands "unrealistic" and insists that at the next round of talks in Geneva at the end of this month, they must be scaled back if the Doha round is to succeed.
"We all have our work cut out for us, including Sue," Mandelson said through a spokesman yesterday. "It really is a question of doing the heavy lifting together."
Schwab is the kind of person, in any case, who finds all these political difficulties "fun."
Growing up in poor countries in Africa and Asia as the daughter of parents in the foreign service, Schwab said she realized early that trade was far more potent than foreign aid in combating poverty and opening up opportunity, a conviction that deepened in graduate school. In that, she says, she has found a kindred spirit in Bush.
Schwab has worked at the Commerce Department, the U.S. Embassy in Japan, on Capitol Hill as a Senate aide and at Motorola, an export powerhouse. She wrote a book about the trade battles of the 1980s and served as dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy before joining the Bush administration.
But now that she is in charge of trade policy, Schwab argues that she can prove the skeptics wrong about a possible breakthrough.
"How can you not be excited and thrilled by this opportunity?" she said. "If you have watched development of U.S. trade policy and global negotiations over the years, you'd be hard pressed to find a more exciting time than the present to be stepping into this kind of role."