In a plea to big labor and liberal Democrats opposing a major new free-trade deal with Asia, President Obama said Thursday the “horse is out of the barn” on America losing jobs overseas and that his proposed agreement would create a more fair trading system.
“Much of that shift in search of low-wage labor has already occurred and yet we don’t have access to those markets that are growing,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting of his Export Council at the White House. “Instead of fighting the last war, what we need to be doing is looking forward.”
The president said the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a market-opening deal that would encompass 11 Pacific Rim nations as a counterweight against China, would boost labor and environmental standards in other countries. U.S. labor groups are opposing the pact due to the potential loss of high-paying jobs in America, but the president said it’s too late for that argument.
“There have been some consequences to China’s ascension to the [World Trade Organization] and offshoring, but … that horse is out of the barn,” Mr. Obama said. “We are now in the worst of all worlds where they have access to our markets.”
The president said he’s “optimistic” that TPP negotiations will conclude successfully soon. The deal has been years in the making, and Mr. Obama is also seeking so-called “fast-track” trade authority from Congress to help him finish the pact.
“I think the odds of us being able to get a strong agreement are significantly higher than 50-50, whereas last year, I think, it was still sort of up for grabs,” he said. Mr. Obama added that he believes the Republican landslide in the midterm election last month hasn’t hurt his chances of getting a trade agreement approved, with many top GOP figures strongly supporting free trade.
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“The dynamics really don’t change in terms of the number of votes in the House and the Senate that are there to be gotten for a good trade deal,” he said. “But we have to make the case — and I think we can make a very strong case — that what we’re doing here is really setting a higher bar that will give us more access to markets.”
Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has opposed giving Mr. Obama fast-track negotiating authority. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he’s hopeful “the president will find a way to bring his party on board with trade legislation that would give the administration the tools it needs to expand opportunities for American workers through increased exports.”
A coalition of progressive groups has been urging Mr. Obama to keep his 2008 election campaign promise “to replace the old U.S. trade model” based on the 1994 NAFTA agreement with Mexico and Canada. So far, they say, they’ve been disappointed.
“With the TPP, Obama is doubling down on the old, failed NAFTA trade pact status quo and even expanding on some of the NAFTA provisions that promoted American job offshoring, flooded us with unsafe imported food and increased medicine prices,” said Lori Wallach, the group’s director.
The president’s efforts to obtain fast-track authority failed in the current Congress, with nearly all House Democrats and a bloc of conservative House Republicans opposing the move. Trade experts say other nations are unlikely to make major concessions toward a deal if Mr. Obama can’t promise Congress will not amend individual parts of the final accord.
Among the corporate chiefs attending the White House meeting were Jim McNerney, chairman of the Boeing Co.; Ursula Burns, chairman of Xerox Corp.; and David Abney, CEO of UPS.
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The president also asked the corporate heads for help in stopping Republicans in the next Congress from imposing new sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. He said such a move would be “counterproductive” and could lead to cracks in the Western alliance just when, he said, Russia and President Vladimir Putin are starting to feel the pressure.
Mr. Putin “does not have good cards and actually has not played them as well as sometimes the Western press gives him credit for,” Mr. Obama said, saying the U.S. needs to demonstrate “strategic patience.”