The Cable

A Dismal Day For Obama’s Desperate Push to Pass His Asian Trade Deal

The president and his deputies continue to push for a trade deal that appears to be dead-on-arrival.


On Thursday, the White House launched a last-ditch, three-pronged effort to get Congress to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership before President Barack Obama leaves office. For now, it’s looks like it will remain a quixotic quest.

First, speaking in New Delhi, Fred Hochberg, chairman of the Export–Import Bank of the U.S., said on Thursday morning China was ready to “pounce” if the United States doesn’t finalize the deal with 11 other Pacific nations that would encompass two-fifths of the world’s economic output. He stressed the world was moving ahead with trade deals without the United States, saying there are 600 such pacts already in force.

“We really can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and lose out,” Hochberg said while attending the India Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum. “If we don’t do TPP, China is ready to engage with them.”

He’s referring to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade deal between the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and regional trading partners, including Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Beijing is a key driver behind this agreement, which excludes the United States.

Hours later, the Economist magazine published an op-ed by Obama, outlining areas of economic policy where work remains to be done. One of them, unsurprisingly, was international trade.

“How has a country that has benefited — perhaps more than any other — from immigration, trade, and technological innovation suddenly developed a strain of anti-immigrant, anti-innovation protectionism?” the president asked. “Why have some on the far left and, even more, on the far right embraced a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore — and that, for most Americans, never existed at all?”

Later in the op-ed, Obama called for not just the passage of TPP, but also the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU. The latter deal is also in doubt, with German officials recently declaring current talks dead.

“While some communities have suffered from foreign competition, trade has helped our economy much more than it has hurt,” Obama wrote, arguing for both deals.

Then, on Thursday morning, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew went to the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington to make the case that Congress could pass TPP during the lame duck session after the presidential election in November. He said the end of the campaign would allow more discussion over the benefits of the deal. Both Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton have said they would scrap the deal if elected.

“Having worked on trade legislation over the course of four decades, it’s never been easy,” Lew said. “It’s always been contentious, and I think in the current economic environment we should and did anticipate it was going to be hard.”

Lew added, “We have an economic and geopolitical imperative here that’s very strong.”

For now, congressional leadership doesn’t agree. Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continue to insist that TPP is dead in the water. Obama’s push, for now, appears to be a wasted effort.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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