Obama finally challenges party’s trade skeptics

Trade policy divides Democrats and unites Republicans. That axiom has guided Democratic leadership in Congress since 2007, when Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid assumed the reins and intentionally drove the trade agenda into a ditch.

Better to bury international trade in a heap of disparagement and fallacy than risk the consequences of an honest, informed discussion.

But change is in the air. With 21 months left in office and his ambitious trade agenda hanging in the balance, President Barack Obama is finally challenging his party’s retrogressive stance.

In response to a question from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews about the loud opposition among Democrats to his trade agenda, Obama said, “They are simply wrong.” Later, the president went on the offensive, accusing politicians in his own party of being dishonest in their portrayals of Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This change in tack is overdue. Hopefully, it’s not too late.

To conclude a Trade Promotion Authority deal, the 11 U.S. negotiating partners must be assured that any agreement reached will not be unraveled by Congress. That is one of the purposes of Trade Promotion Authority, which specifies that Congress will give expedited consideration to international trade agreements reached by the president provided that those deals meet congressional negotiating objectives.

Trade Promotion Authority legislation is under consideration in Congress now, where most Democrats stand firmly opposed because killing Trade Promotion Authority will kill Trans-Pacific Partnership.

By volume of trade and share of global output represented, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be the largest U.S. free trade agreement to date. Though the agreement has not been concluded, nor has any “official” draft text been released, the public has a decent idea of its coverage.

It will likely include 29 chapters dealing with traditional trade issues, such as market access for goods and services, rules of origin, and agricultural barriers.

To convince Democrats beholden to interests opposing trade, the president must explain why the Trans-Pacific Partnership is important and describe the benefits that Americans should expect from its implementation.

He should start by correcting the fallacy that Trade Promotion Authority is a blank check made out by Congress to the president freeing him to negotiate agreements in secret without any congressional input, and explain that Trade Promotion Authority is a compact between the legislative and executive branches.

Realistically, Obama knows much of his base is beyond convincing on trade. But leadership entails hard choices. If he wants to be remembered as a president who expanded Americans’ freedom to trade a, he will have to convince fellow Democrats why he is right.

Daniel Ikenson is the director of Cato’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.