Obama’s on a Roll, but Can He Get Dems to Back His Trade Deal?
Policy + Politics

Obama’s on a Roll, but Can He Get Dems to Back His Trade Deal?

Now that President Obama is assured that Congress will not be able to derail his deal to restrict the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the administration is likely to begin turning its attention to another controversial international deal. This one, however, is pitting the president not against his Republican opponents, but increasingly against high-profile Democrats.

Earlier this summer, President Obama, with a serious assist from Congressional Republicans, scored a major win when Congress approved a proposal to give him trade promotion authority (TPA), which is the ability to bring international trade agreements to Congress for an up-or-down vote, with no amendments possible.

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The push to grant Obama TPA was due, in part, to the pending conclusion of a years-long negotiation over a massive trade deal known as the Trans Pacific Partnership. The deal, negotiated between 12 Pacific nations including the U.S., touches on all manner of goods and services that flow between the countries involved, and has stirred the passions of many liberal Democrats, who believe that the TPP – and most all other trade deals – wind up hurting workers and benefiting corporations.

With TPA in place, the likelihood that the deal will pass Congress is extremely high. However, there will almost certainly be a fight, and most of the blood spilled will be Democratic.

Negotiated in secrecy -- and, according to opponents, with far more participation from corporate interests than labor representatives -- the deal is a constant object of criticism from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is challenging former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has likewise denounced the deal. Clinton has been diffident about TPP, but was a strong advocate for it in her time at the State Department.

With negotiations on TPP nearing completion, it is possible that the administration could find it necessary to bring the proposal to Congress for a vote in the middle of a contentious presidential primary.

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Perhaps as an effort to blunt the expected attacks on the deal – and to minimize the Democrat-on-Democrat political violence it will inspire – U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, in an upcoming edition of the journal Democracy, will publish a lengthy essay making the “progressive” case for TPP.

Froman begins the 5,400-plus-word piece by going directly to the creation of the modern Democratic Party – the transition from the protectionist trade policies of Republican Herbert Hoover, which helped to lengthen the Great Depression, to the more open trade policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the country’s return to prosperity.

Then, after reminding readers of Democrats’ traditional support of free trade deals, Froman promises that TPP will do exactly the opposite of what Sanders, O’Malley and others warn against.

The deal, Froman insists, will first and foremost benefit middle class Americans by contributing to “equitable growth.”

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“Bringing together a diverse group of 12 countries representing nearly 40 percent of the global economy, TPP will reduce barriers to U.S. exports and raise standards in the Asia-Pacific region,” Froman writes. “It will level the playing field for American workers and businesses, giving them a fair shot in the world’s fastest-growing region and supporting more well-paying American jobs.”

He adds, “By 2025, TPP is estimated to generate $305 billion in additional global exports per year, according to a study by the Peterson Institute. Annual U.S. exports are estimated to increase by $123.5 billion. That’s more than the value of all goods exported from Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon, in 2014, combined. If we act now, we can position our middle class for even greater gains down the road.”

Froman also hits on another of the criticisms of the deal: that its environmental protections are too weak.

“TPP represents a powerful tool for overcoming the challenges of collective action that have plagued environmental efforts in the past,” he insists. “It includes incentives for participation, mechanisms for sharing information and facilitating cooperation, and serious consequences for non-compliance.”

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The essay goes on to address other concerns voiced by the left, including issues related to copyright law, human rights and more.

While plainly part of an effort to calm the waters as the deal nears completion, it’s not clear how successful the gambit will be. Clinton has, despite her support for the deal while at State, tried to distance herself from TPP in the past few months.

But when Sanders, her main rival for the nomination, is making opposition to the deal a centerpiece of his campaign, it’s likely to be a flashpoint in the Democratic debate if it comes before Congress during the heat of primary season.