President Barack Obama remains fully committed to working with Congress to pass the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, his National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on March 9.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the provisions of the TPP -- which have been made public -- or not, this is the last chance Obama has to push for a colossal trade agreement he has long favored. After he leaves office it is quite possible that the TPP, long celebrated and advocated by the American business community, has a fork stuck in it by the next president.
The four leading presidential candidates -- former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas -- all oppose the TPP, with Trump's and Sanders' criticisms being the loudest. Trump's repeated and often stunning electoral victories have already forced his Republican opponents to take a harder line on trade issues.
On the Democratic side, Sanders has vocally opposed passage of the TPP since he began his candidacy last year. Sanders' popular economic message has resonated with the Democratic base, and Hillary Clinton has tailored her message on the TPP to attract these voters.
Once calling it the "gold standard" of free trade agreements, Clinton has said during the presidential campaign that the TPP does not do enough to prevent currency manipulation and may lock in high prescription drug prices for Americans.
Against this backdrop, it's difficult to see that something that Obama sees as such a huge part of his "legacy" will become anything more an electoral punching bag even if Congress does manage to pass it before he leaves office. The salespeople for the TPP have done an objectively horrible job at selling their message, especially when compared to Trump's successes in selling his.
So Obama is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He can try to pass TPP now, incur the wrath of the base, possibly make Sanders and Trump even more popular among their respective bases and hope that Clinton will just renege on her campaign promise once in office. Or he can do nothing -- and likely see a similar result anyway. So for the president and other TPP supporters in Congress, there doesn't seem like there's much to lose by pushing it now.
But that instinct could also be wrong. As Foreign Policy notes, if Trump becomes the Republican nominee -- which is still looking likely -- then he will likely attack Clinton, assuming she is the Democratic nominee, vigorously on trade. Rather than holding her own and trying to "pivot to the center" to try to appeal to pro-free trade voters, she is more likely to maintain her current opposition and pull a "no new taxes!" pledge, in the style of former President George H.W. Bush, to help her win the election.
Rice says that to sell the TPP to the public, policymakers need to "articulate the benefits" to average Americans better and challenge arguments against free trade, according to Reuters.
Again, supporters of the agreement have not done a good job at this so far, and if anything have been counterproductive. They have ignored the growing dissatisfaction with trade deals among the American public and have instead opted to dig their heels in and call their opponents names -- how many articles in mainstream publications have been published since January that deride Trump and Sanders for being "economically illiterate"? More than I can count. Hopefully supporters are learning that this is a bad line of attack if they are trying to win support of their own.
And it also makes the president's job of passing TPP that much harder. But if there is any time for him to try and do so, it is now or never.