Shadow Government

The Big Ask and a Hand Across the Aisle: How Obama’s SOTU Speech Helped Bring The U.S. Closer to a Trade Deal Breakthrough

A central truth in trade legislation is that nothing happens without a strong push by the president. There are few more contentious issues you face as a member of Congress. I know, having been one of the deciding votes the last time Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the so-called “Fast Track,” passed both chambers. The chances ...

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A central truth in trade legislation is that nothing happens without a strong push by the president. There are few more contentious issues you face as a member of Congress. I know, having been one of the deciding votes the last time Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the so-called “Fast Track,” passed both chambers.

The chances for TPA are still far from certain. Yet the prospects for completing major trade initiatives in both Asia and Europe that have vital geopolitical implications for America depends on its passage. Those chances were improved by President Obama’s strong endorsement in the State of the Union.

Obama’s speech broadly seemed to be an attempt to position himself as a champion of progressive causes who would keep the Republican Congress from “turning back the clock on our effort.” He recounted a long list of liberal aims that have little likelihood of seeing action in this Congress.

Still, I think his remarks advanced the prospects for trade in a number of ways.

First, the tone of the president’s remarks was not as confrontational as some of his other speeches. The same was true of the excellent rebuttal by Republican Senator Joni Ernst. He also downplayed the “in your face” executive action focus of previous remarks. This is especially important since he would be heavily relying on Republicans to support TPA, which bolsters opportunity for executive action.

Second, he forcefully made the case for trade saying: “21st Century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas. Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages. But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.”

Third, he specifically made the ask, “That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”

Fourth, he appealed in his above stated request to both parties. The majority of the votes in support of TPA are almost certain to come from Republicans. Yet, given the hesitancy of several Republicans to empower President Obama any further, Democratic votes will be essential.

Yet, it will take more than one speech to get TPA across the line. Other promising signs include the president’s actions to “personally lobby labor leaders,” enlist the support of cabinet members to put their oar in the water, marshaling the focus of his administration with a “color-coded target list of some 80 Democrats whose backing they want to secure,” and tapping “Mike Harney, an aide to former Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), to lead congressional relations.” There is little doubt that the president cannot advance his trade agenda without meaningful support from his own party.

We will need to walk many more miles to get the end result of expanded trade that ignites growth broadly benefiting our nation and the world, but we can take heart that the last few steps have been encouraging.

Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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