Eight months after he called for action on a string of stalled free-trade deals, President Obama is battling fierce opposition from his own party and concerns over a rising trade deficit in a rush to meet his own self-imposed November deadline for finishing a major accord with South Korea.
But the failure of the Obama administration to advance any major trade deals has many of his allies on the issue - including many top Republicans - questioning where Mr. Obama can deliver on his promises.
“I’ve never heard a president make the arguments for trade agreements as eloquently as President Obama did in January and not say at the end of that statement: ‘I will send this agreement to you and expect you to pass it, and want to work with you to pass it,’” said Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican and an outspoken proponent of trade deals. “I don’t quite get it.”
“Everybody is moving forward except for us right now,” said Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noting that South Korea, for one, is preparing a free-trade deal with the European Union.
Trade has been a particularly contentious issue for Mr. Obama’s political base. Labor unions are virulently opposed to free-trade deals, which they contend threaten American jobs.
Nervous Democrats are wary of any divisive issues heading into a difficult midterm election.
The president’s “fast-track” authority to negotiate trade deals expired in President George W. Bush’s second term, and there is no visible sign that Mr. Obama will push the Democratic House and Senate majorities to renew fast-track authority.
Mr. Obama, in his State of the Union address in January, asked for bipartisan cooperation from Congress to approve pending trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, while he announced a goal to double U.S. exports in five years. Mr. Obama used a June meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to say he wants sticking points to be hammered out by November, when he visits Seoul for the next Group of 20 summit.
Mr. Obama, who as a presidential candidate opposed the South Korea agreement as it was written, said in Toronto that he hopes to submit the final pact to Congress for approval within a few months after the Seoul meeting.
“It is the right thing to do for our country. It is the right thing to do for the Koreans. It will strengthen our commercial ties,” he said on June 26.
Proponents say news that the U.S. trade deficit in June ballooned to nearly $50 billion, its largest level since October 2008, should inject a sense of urgency into the debate. But the ever-thorny issue of trade has put the president in the precarious position of butting heads with key allies.
The three agreements, all negotiated under Mr. Bush, have languished for years in the face of stiff resistance from labor unions and various U.S. industries that argue that the terms as written give an advantage to their foreign competitors.
In the case of South Korea, U.S. auto manufacturers say that the June 2007 agreement - under which the two countries would eliminate tariffs on 95 percent of consumer and industrial goods within three years - does not address Seoul’s strict vehicle standards that inhibit U.S. imports and jeopardize U.S. jobs by eliminating import duties on Korean pickup trucks, for example.
The administration suggests publicly that negotiations over South Korea are on track. A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said, “The president’s announcement gives us the timeline and focus we need to get this agreement done and ready to submit to Congress.”
Asked whether there were any specific signs of progress in resolving outstanding issues, spokeswoman Carol Guthrie said the government has, since late June, “been engaging more closely than ever with Congress and with stakeholders in preparation for discussions with Korean counterparts in the coming months.”