In the increasingly contentious debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Obama administration on Thursday flipped the script.
The way things usually work in Washington is that when it comes to political fights, the President tries to stay somewhere above the fray if at all possible. The words out of the Oval Office are soothing, conciliatory, and, well, presidential. Some press aide, or maybe a cabinet member in really serious circumstances, gets sent out to deliver the cutting criticism of the administration’s political opponents.
However, on the question of the controversial TPP negotiations, which would change trade rules between the U.S. and many of its Pacific Rim trading partners, it was President Obama’s Trade Representative Mark Froman who played the role of diplomat on Thursday, while the president himself went on the attack.
The administration is in the unfamiliar position of pushing an initiative with broad Republican support but very little Democratic enthusiasm. The trade deal, which has been negotiated in secrecy that, according to some members of Congress, rivals serious national security discussions, is facing significant Democratic resistance.
The negotiations, while opaque to many, have been thrown open to representatives of the businesses most likely to be affected by changes to import and export restrictions. Notably absent from the negotiations have been representatives of organized labor, and groups concerned about the human rights and environmental elements of the deal.
Chief among the Democrats concerned about the deal has been Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has argued that the deal is bad for U.S. workers and bad for U.S. families.
“For more than two years now, giant corporations have had an enormous amount of access to see the parts of the deal that might affect them and to give their views as negotiations progressed,” Warren said in a statement released Wednesday. “But the doors stayed locked for the regular people whose jobs are on the line.”
She warned that the deal could easily contain “a provision hidden in the fine print that could help multinational corporations ship American jobs overseas or allow for watering down of environmental or labor rules.” Congressional approval of Trade Promotion Authority, which would give the president the ability to put a pre-negotiated deal before Congress for an up-or-down vote, she warned, “would mean that Congress couldn’t write an amendment to fix it. It’s all or nothing.”
On Thursday, Froman made an appearance at The Atlantic’s “Summit on the Economy” in Washington, and was asked whether her concerns have “merit.”
“Absolutely,” said Froman. “A lot of the issues for the critics of our trade agenda more broadly, whether it’s Senator Warren or others, certainly have merits. We are concerned about the impact of globalization on jobs and wages in the U.S.”
He added, “The concerns that are raised are absolutely legitimate. We take them very seriously, and we think that we’re dealing with them constructively through these negotiations.”
Less than an hour later, the president made an appearance before Organizing for Action, the progressive group that grew out of his election campaigns. And he made it clear he was seriously unhappy with his critics on the trade deal. Particularly his Democratic critics.
Bottom line, he said: “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“[TPP] is the most progressive trade agreement in our history,” he said. “It’s got strong provisions for works strong provisions for the environment. And unlike some past trade agreements, all these provisions are actually enforceable.
“As I’ve been listening to this debate, I’ve got some good friends who are opposed to this trade agreement, but when I ask them specifically, ‘What is it you oppose?’ they start talking about NAFTA. And I’m thinking ‘Well, I had just come out of law school when NAFTA was passed. That’s not the trade agreement I’m passing. So you need to tell me what’s wrong with this trade agreement, not one that was passed 25 years ago.’”
The president continued for several minutes, sometimes sounding offended, and making a very personal defense of his record on issues related to working Americans.
“When I hear folks saying, this trade deal would destroy the auto industry….” he said, “Listen, I spent a lot of time and a lot of political capital to save the auto industry. Why would I pass a trade deal that was bad for U.S. autoworkers? That doesn’t make any sense.
“When people say this trade deal is bad for working families, they don’t know what they’re talking about. I take that personally. My entire presidency has been about helping working families. I’ve been working too hard at this, and I’ve got some of those folks who are saying that stuff, after all I’ve done to help lift their industries up?
“I spent six and a half years trying to wrestle this economy out of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and rebuild it so that it benefits working Americans. I’ve had to do it against relentless opposition, but every single thing we’ve done, from Obamacare to Wall Street reform to student loan reform to credit card reform, to fighting for a fairer tax code, to higher minimum wages, to a smarter workplace, all of it’s focused on making sure it’s a good deal for middle class families and folks who are working hard to get into the middle class.”
Long after he might have switched to a different subject, the president continued going after his critics on TPP.
“If I didn’t think this was the right thing to do for working families, I would not be doing it,” he said. “I’ve got some of these folks who are friends of mine, allies of mine, saying this trade deal would destroy American working families, despite the fact that I’ve done everything in my power to make sure that working families are empowered.”
“So by this logic, I would have had to do all this stuff for the last six and a half years and then, suddenly,” he snapped his fingers, “say ‘Well, I just want to destroy all of that.’”
President Obama eventually moved on to different topics, and in the end, Congress seems likely to give him the Trade Promotion Authority he seeks, perhaps in a matter of days. Whether the fight over TPP has done damage to his relationship with key allies may take longer to determine.
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