President Obama has turned from defensive to defiant on the issue of free trade, openly warning both his critics and the experts not to count him out on getting the embattled Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal though Congress before he leaves office in less than six months.
At a feisty White House press conference with the visiting prime minister of Singapore, the president boasted that he’s “got a pretty good track record of getting stuff done when I think it’s important.”
And he left no doubt that he thinks it is really important to approve the TPP trade pact involving 11 other Pacific Rim countries with one-third of world trade and 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
After TPP took a beating at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, he had a blunt answer when it was pointed out to him that the deal is opposed by Republican nominee Donald Trump, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine:
“Right now,” responded Obama, “I’m president. And I’m for it.”
He predicted he will prevail because “I think I’ve got the better argument and I’ve made this argument before, I’ll make it again.” It is an argument the president has been making with increasing passion in recent days, almost as a counter to the heated anti-TPP rhetoric of the two conventions.
As recently as June when he made his TPP pitch to the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, Obama seemed isolated, defensive and a little taken aback by the way the debate had turned against him both in Congress and in the country. With Trump the first protectionist to represent the GOP since 1932, Republicans on Capitol Hill had gone wobbly on free trade while the liberal and organized labor opposition had hardened.
But Tuesday, standing aside Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the East Room, Obama seemed eager to overcome the odds and prove the skeptics wrong. And, in Lee, he had an ardent cheerleader both to egg him on and to warn that the global stakes are strikingly high. Lee called TPP’s approval “vital from a strategic point of view” and said all of Asia is looking to the debate for “a strong signal of the U.S. commitment to continue its deep engagement in the region.”
He noted that the United States had pushed many Pacific leaders to take politically perilous steps challenging their own domestic constituencies. Now, they are waiting for Obama to deliver. “If, at the end, waiting at the altar, the bride doesn’t arrive, I think there are people who are going to be very hurt,” Lee said. “Not just emotionally, but really damaged for a long time to come.”
Lee, 64, cast himself as a longtime observer of American campaigns. “Our experience of American elections … has been that many pressures build up during the election campaign, and after the elections, in a calmer, cooler atmosphere, positions are rethought, strategies are nuanced and a certain balance is kept in the direction of state.” To laughter he added that the American system of checks and balances means “it is not so easy to completely mess things up.”
Obama also looked toward the end of the campaign to push for the TPP. “Hopefully, after the election is over and the dust settled, there will be more attention to the actual facts behind the deal and it won’t just be a political symbol or a political football,” he said. He promised to “sit down with people on both sides, on the right and on the left … and we will go down through the provisions.” He said he hopes to overcome what he called “a lot of misinformation” about the deal, voicing confidence “I can make the case that this is good for American workers.”
To those saying he will fail, he recalled those who said he would not be able to persuade Congress to give him Trade Promotion Authority last year. “Somehow,” he said, “we muddled through and got it done. And I intend to do the same with respect to the actual agreement.”
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