Obama Vows to Push Trade Deal After Election
President Obama vowed to continue his push for a significant multilateral trade agreement before he leaves office despite diminished support on Capitol Hill and outright opposition from both of his potential successors.
Obama and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore – one of the nations involved in the trade pact – spoke at a joint press conference at the White House Tuesday, making both domestic and international arguments in favor of the agreement.
Opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stems from middle-class angst over job losses and wage decreases from previous trade agreements. Obama reiterated his argument Tuesday that the answer to those concerns is not to avoid globalization of trade, but to make it more effective.
He asserted that the agreement boosts U.S. workers’ economic interests because it scraps thousands of tariffs to ease the export of U.S. goods, and strengthens environmental and labor regulations. He expressed confidence that he could sway lawmakers to back him on the agreement before his term ends.
Obama’s comments came the week after grassroots opposition to TPP took center stage during parts of Clinton’s Democratic National Convention -- highlighting the prospect of a major intra-party fight amid her White House transition should she win in November.
“Right now, I'm president and I'm for it. And I think I've got the better argument and I've made this argument before. I'll make it again,” Obama said.
Lee, the Singaporean leader, said the U.S. could be putting its alliances and interests in the Pacific in jeopardy if the trade pact fails. He specifically mentioned Japan, and said that the U.S. could damage ties between the two nations if Congress walks away from the agreement.
“I think in terms of America's engagement of the region, you have put your reputation on the line.” Lee said. “… Your partners, your friends who have come to the table, who have negotiated, each one of them has overcome some domestic political objection, some sensitivity, some political cost to come to the table and make this deal. And if at the end, waiting at the altar the bride doesn't arrive, I think there are people who are going to be very hurt. Not just emotionally, but really damaged for a long time to come.”
Obama’s last chance to get the trade deal passed during his administration will likely come in the lame-duck session of Congress after the election. The president said Tuesday he hoped that once the election “dust settles,” it would be easier to debate the facts of the agreement, which has been used as a “political football."
Still, when it comes to winning support from lawmakers, Obama faces significant problems. Few Democrats have signaled any willingness to support the TPP, and many Republicans who favored negotiating it are currently opposed because of substantive policy issues.
Paul Ryan, who led a push to fast-track the deal in Congress before he became speaker, has said the votes are not there to pass it through the House. Ryan said last month the Obama administration “screwed up” in negotiating certain aspects of the deal.
“They didn’t get the additional Democrats, and they just lost the Republicans like myself,” he said, according to the Wall Street Journal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is also broadly supportive of trade agreements, said last month the chances of TPP passing this year are “pretty slim.”
While Obama expressed confidence that he could win a debate over TPP on the merits of the deal, that wouldn’t necessarily be enough to jam it through before he leaves office. Republicans have often criticized Obama’s negotiations with their party on Capitol Hill, and wouldn’t likely be amenable to a persuasion campaign in the administration’s final weeks, particularly if Trump is elected.
If Clinton wins and makes a pitch against TPP in the lame-duck session, Republicans may be willing to push for the agreement, but maintaining minimal Democratic backing could be difficult, pitting supportive Democrats against their incoming president.
Obama pointed out in the news conference Tuesday that many were skeptical last year that Congress would pass Trade Promotion Authority, the fast-track procedure that allows Congress to vote up or down on trade deals without amending them. He suggested he “muddled through” to get fast-track authority passed and would do the same for the actual trade agreement.
But fast-track passed without a vote to spare in both the House and Senate, and Obama can’t necessarily rely on that same coalition to back the TPP when he makes a final push. And first, he would have to persuade Ryan and McConnell to give the deal a vote.
“I will sit down with people on both sides, on the right and on the left,” Obama said. “I will sit down publicly with them, and we will go down through the provisions. I would enjoy that, because there is a lot of misinformation. I am really confident I can make the case that this is good for American workers and the American people.”