Stymied at Home, Obama Takes TPP Abroad

President to make case at G20 summit that pact is 'litmus test' of U.S. leadership 

Despite opposition at home — or perhaps because of it — President Obama is taking his case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal abroad.

Administration officials said at a White House press briefing Monday that Obama plans to make a forceful case for the 12-nation trade pact when he heads to Asia later this week for the G20 summit — the meeting of the world’s largest economic powers.

“Anyone who has had any amount of experience with trade policy issues, going back 20 to 25 years, knows that nothing is ever dead until the proverbial stake literally is driven through its heart and people are still stomping on it.”

“And the trip will give him an opportunity to once again make the case for America’s focus on the Asia Pacific, to make the case for TPP as a centerpiece of our economic and strategic leadership in the region, and to address some of the very pressing issues that are going to be on the agenda,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who later added that leaders in those countries see the agreement as a “litmus test for U.S. leadership.”

Increasing opposition across the political spectrum has already caused leading figures from both political parties to jettison their support of the trade pact. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation last week that the politics of TPP had become “toxic.” Citing “serous flaws” with the agreement that Obama negotiated, he said he would not schedule a vote on trade this year.

McConnell’s comments followed similar backtracking from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on the eve of his primary victory on Aug. 9. Ryan told reporters in Wisconsin that he opposes the deal in its current form.

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But critics of the deal said they will not rest easy.

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“Anyone who has had any amount of experience with trade policy issues, going back 20 to 25 years, knows that nothing is ever dead until the proverbial stake literally is driven through its heart and people are still stomping on it,” said economic policy analyst Alan Tonelson.

Curtis Ellis, executive director of the American Jobs Alliance, agreed.

“I wouldn’t put anything past this president to do everything in his power to gain approval for this globalist agreement,” he said.

Opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership has created a strange-bedfellows alliance between labor-oriented Democrats and populist Republicans — who typically disagree on most other issues.

“We never thought we would agree with Mitch McConnell on something, but we do agree on not bringing the TPP to a vote in the lame-duck session,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green said in a prepared statement. “There’s widespread, bipartisan opposition to the corporate-written TPP and an unaccountable, lame-duck Congress voting on it.”

Proponents of the trade agreement have argued that it would boost the U.S. economy by tearing down tariffs and other trade barriers that make it harder for American companies to export products. Opponents, however, contend that the agreement would kill jobs and hasten the decline of the American industrial heartland. Benefits are modest even under the most optimistic scenarios envisioned by pro-trade economic studies.

With the agreement stalled, Obama administration officials lately have been making a different case — that the pact offers a counterweight to the growing influence of China and that U.S. credibility and prestige are on the line.

“TPP allows us to establish the rules of the road for trade and commerce,” Rhodes told reporters at Monday’s briefing. “It’s also seen as a demonstration of America’s commitment to be a Pacific power.”

Tonelson said presidents tend to look “statesmanlike” when they are meeting abroad with foreign leaders and generally enjoy a short-term bump in their approval ratings. It may be the most favorable setting for the president to sell the deal to lawmakers and voters back home.

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“He’s hoping for some favorable optics,” Tonelson added.

Ellis said the outcome of the November election is crucial. If Republican Donald Trump wins, he said, it will likely halt momentum for the pact. He said that if Clinton wins, however, it will strengthen the prospects for a vote in the lame-duck session. That is particularly true if a large number of lawmakers lose re-election and are no longer accountable to voters.

“They will have a free vote,” he said. “They will trade their vote for a job on K Street.”

Ellis said Ryan often couches his opposition to a House vote as a concession to political realities. But he said the speaker might change his mind if he believes there are enough “aye” votes.

“That could be the leverage point for McConnell to back down,” he said. “It would be very foolish to regard this thing as dead and buried.”

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