Barack Obama’s New Trade Lobbyist

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in Washington to talk trade.

US President Barack Obama accompanies Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a visit to Lincoln Memorial on April 27, 2015 in Washington,DC.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
April 28, 2015, 1 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama is likely to be smil­ing when Ja­pan­ese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe goes to Cap­it­ol Hill on Wed­nes­day—something he def­in­itely didn’t do one of the last times a for­eign lead­er spoke be­fore Con­gress.

Back in March, Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu warned Con­gress, “Don’t be fooled” by the pres­id­ent, and he lob­bied against the White House’s ef­forts to work out a nuc­le­ar agree­ment with Ir­an. Now, 55 days later, on an­oth­er con­tro­ver­sial is­sue—trade—Abe steps for­ward as an im­port­ant ally lob­by­ing for an Obama deal.

With the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­quest for Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity hanging in the bal­ance, the White House sees Abe’s vis­it—and his in­ter­ven­tion with Con­gress—as com­ing at a key mo­ment, even as the United States and Ja­pan struggle to wrap up their parts in the ne­go­ti­ations on the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, a 12-na­tion free-trade deal.

“I don’t think Abe will re­peat the per­form­ance of the pre­vi­ous guest,” said Sheila A. Smith, seni­or fel­low for Ja­pan Stud­ies at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. “That’s not at all in his in­terests, and I don’t think he is in­clined to identi­fy Ja­pan­ese in­terests as be­ing di­ver­gent from our ad­min­is­tra­tion’s.” She pre­dicted Abe will “make a strong case” for TPP and will “try to sell TPP to those con­gress­men and wo­men who re­main a little bit on the fence.”

Oth­er ana­lysts agree. “This is not a Net­an­yahu mo­ment,” Shi­hoko Goto, a seni­or as­so­ci­ate in the Wilson Cen­ter’s Asia Pro­gram, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “With TPP, Ja­pan wants to move for­ward. Amer­ica wants to move for­ward. It is good for both coun­tries. It is good for Asia. It is good for the world, and that’s what he wants to talk about.”

What this speech doesn’t have is the same buildup as Net­an­yahu’s, whose ap­pear­ance was marked by con­tro­versy over the pro­tocol of the in­vit­a­tion and hyped fur­ther by sub­sequent boy­cotts. But while Abe’s speech won’t have nearly the same na­tion­al im­pact, the White House hopes his per­son­al ap­peal is enough to nudge a few more mem­bers to ap­pre­ci­ate the eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits of the trade deal.

The fact is, for the White House, TPP re­mains a tough sell in Con­gress where most of the pres­id­ent’s own party is abandon­ing him on the is­sue.

At the same time, the TPP ne­go­ti­ations are stalled over the last re­main­ing obstacles—the tar­iffs pro­tect­ing Ja­pan­ese farm­ers and Amer­ic­an pro­tec­tions for U.S. trucks and autos. In an in­ter­view with The Wall Street Journ­al re­leased Monday, Obama ac­know­ledged the stick­ing points will prob­ably pre­vent a deal from be­ing fi­nal­ized while Abe is in Wash­ing­ton.

“Ne­go­ti­ations are tough on both sides be­cause he’s got his own polit­ics and in­terests,” said Obama. “Ja­pan­ese farm­ers are tough, Ja­pan­ese auto­makers want cer­tain things. I don’t ex­pect that we will com­plete all ne­go­ti­ations” this week. Though he ad­ded that the “parties (are) much closer to­geth­er.”

Abe has cham­pioned TPP from the start, push­ing it hard on his first vis­it to Wash­ing­ton after his elec­tion in 2013—even though he has his own do­mest­ic crit­ics, in­clud­ing Ja­pan­ese farm­ers who do not want to lower the tar­iffs that pro­tect them from U.S. com­pet­i­tion. That is one reas­on why the con­gres­sion­al dis­pute over trade is big news in Ja­pan. “The Ja­pan­ese are watch­ing our de­bate here,” said Smith. “They are try­ing to gauge wheth­er we are well po­si­tioned to move for­ward.”

The speech to a joint meet­ing of Con­gress—the first ever by any Ja­pan­ese prime min­is­ter—will be the high­light of what is an ex­traordin­ar­ily long U.S. vis­it by Abe. It star­ted Monday in Bo­ston and fea­tured an un­sched­uled vis­it with Obama to the Lin­coln Me­mori­al later in the day. Tues­day, Abe will get the most pomp and ce­re­mony a White House can de­liv­er, with a full form­al ar­rival ce­re­mony on the South Lawn, talks in the Oval Of­fice dur­ing the day, and a State Din­ner in the even­ing. Then, it’s to Con­gress on Wed­nes­day be­fore leav­ing for New York and, later in the week, to Cali­for­nia.

The breadth of his sched­ule is de­signed to show the depth of Ja­pan-U.S. ties even as both coun­tries mark the 70th an­niversary of Ja­pan’s sur­render to con­clude World War II. And to both gov­ern­ments, noth­ing says that those hos­til­it­ies are long gone more than the deep­er eco­nom­ic ties sym­bol­ized by the TPP and the deep­er mil­it­ary ties dis­cussed on Monday.

Both sides con­tend the two lead­ers have a good re­la­tion­ship—cer­tainly a con­trast with the Obama-Net­an­yahu fric­tion. An of­fi­cial in the Ja­pan­ese Em­bassy privately boas­ted that they en­joy an easy com­pat­ib­il­ity that al­lows them to use first names in their meet­ings. That re­calls the days of the “Ron and Yasu” show, star­ring Pres­id­ent Ron­ald Re­agan and Prime Min­is­ter Yas­uhiro Na­kasone. But it still falls short of last dec­ade, when Pres­id­ent George W. Bush de­lighted his Elvis-lov­ing coun­ter­part by tak­ing Prime Min­is­ter Ju­nichiro Ko­i­zumi to Grace­land.

“On the per­son­al re­la­tion­ship, this isn’t as good as Bush and Ko­i­zumi,” said Goto. “You know Obama—this is as pas­sion­ate as he’s go­ing to get.”

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