Obama Is America’s Last Lonely Free Trader

The president is making a final push for a massive Asian trade deal that has been rejected by both Trump and Clinton — and by plenty of the powerful Republicans who once supported it.


One year ago, U.S. President Barack Obama seemed poised to cement the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade deal with Asian nations covering 40 percent of the global economy that he considers a cornerstone of his economic legacy and a centerpiece of his much vaunted pivot to Asia. Over objections from liberal Democrats, including longtime ally Rep. Nancy Pelosi, he teamed up with Republican congressional leadership to win fast-track authority, allowing him to quickly pass trade bills. All that was left was to sign the deal and deliver it to the free trade-supporting Republicans in Congress, where it would become official.

Now, it seems Obama’s vision has become a fantasy.

Both Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic counterpart, Hillary Clinton, oppose the deal, using it as a bogeyman for an American middle and working class left behind in a sluggish economic recovery after the Great Recession. Trump jettisoned decades of GOP free trade orthodoxy to criticize the deal and pretty much every other trade pact the United States has inked. Clinton, who as secretary of state championed the TPP, had to tack to the left during the primary lest she be outflanked by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Congressional support for the deal has also eroded. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who dropped his backing due to tobacco restrictions contained in the final agreement, have warned Obama not to bring the pact to the floor of either chamber; they say he doesn’t have the votes to pass it. His only hope is to push the deal through during the upcoming lame-duck session, but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently cautioned him that it was a losing gambit.

Obama, a moderate Democrat who backs free trade in office (though he campaigned against trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA), is now a ship adrift in a sea of trade isolationists, both Democratic and Republican.

On Tuesday, speaking with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country is an enthusiastic signatory of the pact, Obama admitted securing the TPP before the general election in November was a lost cause. Still, he vowed to keep fighting, saying, “Right now, I’m president, and I’m for it.”

“Hopefully, after the election is over and the dust settles, there will be more attention to the actual facts behind the deal, and it won’t just be a political symbol or a political football,” Obama said.

He added, “If you care about preventing abuse of workers, child labor, wildlife trafficking, overfishing, the decimation of forests — all of those things are addressed in this agreement. I have not yet heard anybody make an argument that the existing trading rules are better for issues like labor rights and environmental rights than they would be if we got TPP passed.”

Obama promised to “continue to make this case.… I think I’ve got the better argument, and I’ve got the evidence to support it.”

Then, in an unusually admonishing tone for a foreign leader visiting the White House, Lee said abandoning the deal, negotiated in secret over five years between 12 signatories, would harm U.S. credibility abroad.

“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,” Lee said.

Obama has long maintained that the absence of a regionwide trade pact like the TPP allows China to make the rules in Asia, something Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), said is the primary danger of abandoning the accord.

“China will see a giant opening, boldly going forward to try to take leadership in the [World Trade Organization] and to come up with proposals where China opens its own markets,” Hufbauer told Foreign Policy. This includes China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a deal meant to rival the TPP.

Whether there’s enough support in Congress to buck the prevailing winds and pass the TPP during the lame-duck session remains an open question, even if, according to a March poll by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans think trade agreements between the United States and other countries have been good for the country, compared with 39 percent who believe they have been bad. The fast-track vote in the House was close — 219 to 211. The Senate passed it by a wider margin, granting the president the authority by a count of 60 to 37.

What remains to be seen is whether these counts would hold. McConnell is the most high-profile TPP flip-flopper in the Senate. In the House, however, Ryan is still a strong backer of free markets.

Speaking Monday before a group of wealthy conservatives, the House speaker said Republicans were engaged in a “fight for the soul of our party,” referring to supporting free market principles. He also stressed the importance of trade deals like the TPP.

Republicans are “trying to restore ourselves as protectors of the market, and not of the business, and that is the fight for the soul of our party we are in the middle of having right now,” Ryan said.

PIIE’s Hufbauer estimates that there’s a 10 percent chance the TPP could be passed during the lame-duck session. He envisioned three scenarios.

In the first, Trump is so overwhelmingly defeated that 40 of the 190 House Republicans who voted for fast-track authority, but have since flip-flopped, would retreat to their previous pro-trade position. In the second, a victorious Clinton would ask Congress to pass the deal but would have final say over whether it became law after her inauguration. This would give her a chance to put her own stamp on the pact, as her husband, former President Bill Clinton, did in 1993 when he made changes to NAFTA after taking office.

Finally, House and Senate leadership could concede that they’re not going to get a better deal and that leaving the TPP would severely damage U.S. global credibility. But he believes the chances of any of these things happening are slim.

Instead, Hufbauer says, the TPP “goes on the back burner, at least so far as the United States is concerned.”

Photo credit: Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images

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