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. (APEC)

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.