Obama Still Defiant on Pacific Trade Deal

He is unfazed by the fact that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump oppose TPP: “Right now, I’m president, and I’m for it.”

President Obama and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong walk off stage at the conclusion of their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 2, 2016, 4:24 p.m.

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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