For Obama on Trade, Back-Patting Abroad and Trouble at Home

In Manila, the president and his fellow world leaders are busy congratulating each other. In Washington, the mood is very different.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino III and his sister, Maria Elena Aquino-Cruz, greet President Obama at the welcome dinner at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Philippines, on Wednesday.
Nov. 18, 2015, 2:20 p.m.

In Ma­nila on Wed­nes­day, it was a time of cel­eb­ra­tion and hand­shakes for Pres­id­ent Obama and the 11 Asia-Pa­cific lead­ers who to­geth­er ne­go­ti­ated the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship. For the U.S. pres­id­ent, it must have been tempt­ing there in the five-star Sofitel Phil­ip­pine Plaza Hotel, with its spec­tac­u­lar views of Ma­nila Bay and its lush trop­ic­al land­scap­ing, to mo­ment­ar­ily for­get that not every­body back home is cheer­ing.

For 8,600 miles away, back un­der gray, threat­en­ing skies in Wash­ing­ton, there were vivid re­mind­ers that the do­mest­ic crit­ics who con­demn the TPP trade deal aren’t go­ing to be quiet, something quite evid­ent to the com­muters stuck on roads snarled by plac­ard-bear­ing pro­test­ers. Or­gan­ized by a co­ali­tion of 63 or­gan­iz­a­tions op­posed to free-trade deals, the D.C. protests fea­tured a block­ade of the of­fices of the U.S. Trade Rep­res­ent­at­ive and a march out­side the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce.

They did noth­ing, though, to dampen the TPP en­thu­si­asm of the pres­id­ent, who was at­tend­ing the an­nu­al Asia Pa­cific Eco­nom­ic Co­ordin­a­tion (APEC) sum­mit in the Phil­ip­pines. “This marks our first gath­er­ing at the lead­ers level since our 12 coun­tries agreed on the land­mark Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship,” ex­ul­ted Obama, con­grat­u­lat­ing his coun­ter­parts for “an out­stand­ing job.”

His re­marks re­flec­ted the out­size im­port­ance of the deal in the pres­id­ent’s sig­nal for­eign policy goal of pivot­ing U.S. policy to­ward Asia and the Pa­cific. Not­ing that the coun­tries in the pact have 40 per­cent of the world’s gross do­mest­ic product, he said the TPP is “help­ing to write the rules of glob­al trade for the 21st cen­tury.” Left un­stated is that the lead­ers see the deal as crit­ic­al to for­cing China—which is not a sig­nat­ory to TPP—to play by those rules.

A White House state­ment boas­ted that the deal “spans the Pa­cific, touches three con­tin­ents, and unites 800 mil­lion people” and hailed it as “a new and com­pel­ling mod­el for trade in one of the world’s fast­est grow­ing and most dy­nam­ic re­gions.”

Neither the pres­id­ent nor the state­ment ac­know­ledged the polit­ic­al dif­fi­culties he faces try­ing to get a skep­tic­al Con­gress to rat­i­fy it. That was left to a brief ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion fol­low­ing Obama’s meet­ing with Phil­ip­pine Pres­id­ent Be­nigno Aquino. In re­sponse to a ques­tion, the pres­id­ent brushed aside the stiff op­pos­i­tion to the deal from many in his own party.

“There is not a trade deal that has been done in mod­ern Amer­ic­an polit­ics that’s not oc­ca­sion­ally chal­len­ging,” he said. “But we get it done. And I’m con­fid­ent we’re go­ing to be able to get it done.” Aquino noted that both coun­tries have elec­tions next year and in­dic­ated that he un­der­stands the pres­sure on Obama in a cam­paign sea­son. “At the end of the elec­tion peri­od, there will be sobri­ety. … We think that once elec­tions are over, that cur­rent voices will die down and there will be new cham­pi­ons of in­creased free trade amongst all coun­tries.”

Obama, of course, can­not wait for next year’s elec­tions be­fore push­ing TPP through Con­gress, and he al­most cer­tainly faced ques­tions in Ma­nila from oth­er lead­ers anxious about the fate of the deal on Cap­it­ol Hill.

“On TPP, I would say that Asia is very con­cerned about the very par­tis­an polit­ics in the United States,” said Ern­est Bower, the Sum­itro Chair for South­east Asia Stud­ies at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton. He said that con­cern is some­what checked by the oth­er lead­ers’ un­der­stand­ing that “trade agree­ments even­tu­ally do tend to get passed in our Con­gress.”

Mat­thew Good­man, who served on Obama’s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil and was the co­ordin­at­or for the APEC sum­mits in his first term, said the pres­id­ent al­most cer­tainly got ques­tions in Ma­nila about the rat­i­fic­a­tion pro­spects. He said the pres­id­ent most likely is telling them, “We’re work­ing on it. You’re go­ing to hear a lot of noise, but in the end we’ll get this done.”

Mi­chael Green, who was on Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s NSC in his first term, said Obama could just as well ask the oth­er lead­ers about their pro­spects for get­ting TPP through their own rat­i­fic­a­tion pro­cesses, not­ing that there is something in the pact that is a tough sell in each coun­try.

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