President Obama will try to revive a massive free-trade agreement, the centerpiece of his Asia policy, when he departs Tuesday for a weeklong trip to four Pacific Rim nations.
His trip comes at a pivotal moment for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade pact that is supported by business, but opposed by Mr. Obama’s labor allies and Democratic lawmakers. The president will renew his pitch for the deal during a state visit to Japan and stops in South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
But those trading partners are well aware of opposition to TPP in the U.S., where labor unions say the agreement would drain their ranks of good-paying jobs. The Teamsters and the Communications Workers of America said Monday the free-trade pact “will become the next in the long line of broken trade agreements that hurt workers and Main Street businesses, no matter what spin comes out of this sales trip.”
The trade deal plays a huge role in Mr. Obama’s policy toward China, which isn’t a party to the pact and isn’t a stop on Mr. Obama’s itinerary. Foreign-policy analysts say that Pacific Rim nations are looking for reassurance from Mr. Obama that the U.S. will serve as a strong partner in the region to act as a counterweight to China without provoking Beijing.
Also hanging over Mr. Obama’s trip is his widely-perceived inability to win cooperation in Washington. The president originally intended to promote the trade deal in Asia last October, but had to cancel that trip due to the government shutdown.
Since then, Democratic lawmakers have grown more outspoken against granting Mr. Obama so-called “fast-track” authority to negotiate the trade deal without allowing significant changes by Congress.
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“The president has developed credibility problems in terms of delivering on the congressional support,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a former national security aide in the Clinton White House and a specialist on Asia policy at the Brookings Institution. “There’s less confidence that the president has become effective in dealing with the Congress and that may really be a major issue in finalizing TPP.”
In a conference call with reporters ahead of the president’s trip, House Democrats predicted Mr. Obama’s efforts will fail.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, New York Democrat, said it was “a bit odd for the president to push for TPP in Japan when he has not gotten fast-track negotiating authority from the Congress.”
Rep. Louise Slaughter, New York Democrat, went further, saying the White House “basically knows this is over.”
White House national security adviser Susan E. Rice wouldn’t say that Mr. Obama will clinch the trade deal during the trip, but she said the administration is getting close to a final agreement.
“We expect very much that the president’s travels and our continued work in the coming weeks and months on TPP will continue to yield progress,” she said. “And we expect that as a result of that we will be able to conclude an agreement.”
Mr. Obama will meet in Tokyo with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is seeking a more robust role for Japan’s armed forces as tensions with China are rising. The president then will travel to South Korea to renew assurances with President Park Geun-hye about the U.S. alliance in the face of North Korea’s nuclear belligerence.
His arrival in South Korea also will come as Mrs. Park’s government is still grappling with one of the nation’s worst peacetime disasters, the sinking of a passenger ferry mostly filled with high-school students. Nearly 90 people were confirmed dead and more than 200 others were still missing Monday evening.
Mr. Obama’s visit to Malaysia will be the first there by a U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson. On Sunday, Mr. Obama will make a cultural visit to the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, followed by a meeting with Prime Minister Najib Razak and a town-hall meeting with young people from Asia at University of Malaya.
The president will wrap up his trip with a visit on Monday and Tuesday to the Philippines, where he will meet with President Benigno Aquino III. While there, he’ll speak with U.S. and Filipino service members and lay a wreath at the American Cemetery where more than 17,000 U.S. troops from World War II are buried.