Obama Begins Sales Pitch To Congress On Trans-Pacific Partnership



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Negotiators reached agreement on a massive trade deal this week. It sets in motion a complex political fight — one that involves federal policy, the national economy, President Obama's legacy, and creates a backdrop for the 2016 presidential election.

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Here in Washington, President Obama is beginning his latest public campaign. It's to persuade Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal - the TPP. The toughest part is getting his own Democrats to support him. We'll hear from one of them in a moment. First, here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president opened his sales pitch at a meeting with a wide array of business leaders, including the heads of the National Chicken Council and the Motion Picture Association. He said the trade deal will make the U.S. more competitive by eliminating about 18,000 taxes and tariffs that other countries place on American exports.


BARACK OBAMA: Malaysia currently puts a 30 percent tax on American auto parts. Vietnam puts a tax of as much as 70 percent on every car American automakers sell in Vietnam. Under this agreement, all those foreign taxes will fall. Most of them will fall to zero.

LIASSON: But it's not just about tariffs. When many Americans look at trade deals, they worry about jobs going overseas. Obama's former secretary of state has been backing away from the deal. Here's how Hillary Clinton finally admitted that she would've voted against the legislation that will allow the trade deal to get an up or down vote in Congress next spring.


HILLARY CLINTON: At this point, probably not.

LIASSON: When Clinton was secretary of state, she once called the deal the, quote, "gold standard in trade agreements." But she's left open the possibility that she will now break with President Obama on this issue. Her criteria leaves plenty of wiggle room.


CLINTON: It needs to, number one, protect American workers.


CLINTON: Number two, it needs to raise wages and create good jobs at home. Number three, it needs to be in our nation security interest.

LIASSON: Why the ambivalence? Here's one simple explanation.


BERNIE SANDERS: I think it is obvious to anyone who has taken a look at this issue that the TPP is just a new easy way for corporations to shut down in America to send jobs abroad.

LIASSON: That's Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist who's ahead of Clinton in the polls in New Hampshire and close behind her in Iowa. Trade is always a tough sell for Democrats. The party's organized labor base is against the deal, and President Obama probably won't get more than two dozen Democratic votes for TPP in the house. But he also might find it hard to line up Republican support since populist opposition to trade deals with other countries is strong in both parties.


DONALD TRUMP: 'Cause every trade deal we make stinks. It stinks. I like fair trade, and I like smart trade. You know, fair trade is good if you have smart people negotiating, and I would have the best 'cause I know the best.

LIASSON: Donald Trump has company. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee are also against TPP. Support for the deal, the traditional position for Republicans, comes from establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and here, Marco Rubio.


MARCO RUBIO: Every country in the world that we have free trade with, we have a surplus - every one. The countries that we're doing free trade with, for the most part, are high-wage countries, and that's - in essence, these are - and if we don't have free trade, we're going to see more manufacturing leave the U.S.

LIASSON: As for Hillary Clinton, whose decision on TPP is perhaps the most politically consequential of all the candidates, the White House insists the president is sympathetic to her desire to read the whole agreement before deciding. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration would welcome Clinton's support, but it's a decision for her to make. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.