NYT: Obama Bolsters His Leverage With Trade Victory, but at a Cost


WASHINGTON — President Obama’s success in rescuing his high-priority trade legislation from a rebellion by fellow Democrats strengthens his hand internationally and paves the way for completion of the most expansive economic agreement in generations.

[Reposted from The New York Times  |  Peter Baker  |  June 24, 2015]

While the turbulent process was embarrassing for the president and deeply confusing for foreign negotiating partners, Mr. Obama now has the leverage he sought to force the final concessions needed to wrap up a free-trade pact bringing together 12 nations along the Pacific Rim. Talks should resume soon, and American officials hope for a deal in short order.

But the victory on Capitol Hill, orchestrated mainly by the same Republican leaders Mr. Obama has battled over the last six years, came at a cost. The open warfare within his own party was searing and may be slow to heal. Democratic lawmakers said an already fraught relationship with the president had soured further, and some vowed to keep fighting the trade pact, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, foreshadowing another bruising battle.

Mr. Obama faces the question of how he will move forward with Congress in the time he has left in office. Given the alliance with Republican leaders on a shared priority, can he capitalize on the momentum to achieve further bipartisan accords? Or is this a one-time convergence of interests that does not carry over to other major issues like the budget?

“He’s had a collaboration across the aisle that gave him maybe the strongest legacy of his presidency,” said Carla Hills, who served as the United States trade representative under the first President George Bush and went on to found a consulting firm advising businesses on expanding international trade. “Now he’s got 15 months left. What’s he going to do with it?”

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. Obama has found common ground with Republicans several times in the six months since they took control of the Senate and added to their House majority. He signed a bipartisan measure imposing new restrictions on national security surveillance, and, after initially threatening a veto, accepted bipartisan legislation giving Congress a role in evaluating any nuclear deal with Iran.

White House officials see room for further consensus with Republicans on a large public works program of road, bridge and other construction projects, as well as legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system to address what both parties see as excessive incarceration.

While they would not say so out loud, White House officials found it easier to work with Congress on trade now that Republicans control of both houses. Mr. Obama and his team saw Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, as challenging to work with when he was in the majority, and his opposition could have made it impossible to pass the trade authority measure last year.

By contrast, Obama aides have privately praised Republicans like Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader; Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio; and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, saying they were straightforward and professional during the trade debate. And Mr. Obama invested more energy in lobbying for trade authority, which would grant him enhanced negotiating power, than he had in perhaps any initiative since Democrats lost the House in 2010.

“The last six months, working on this, they’ve really shown a willingness for the first time to work across the aisle, and because of that, this key economic measure has been salvaged,” said former Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a Republican who is president of the Business Roundtable. “It would have been catastrophic if it had been defeated.”

White House officials argued that Mr. Obama’s efforts were crucial because he delivered enough Democrats to put the measure over the top. Yet he delivered relatively few Democratic votes and had to be saved by Republicans after House Democrats blocked his trade package. Democratic opponents of the trade legislation bristled at what they saw as the president’s belittling their concerns and accusing them of making up arguments.

The legislation sent to Mr. Obama allows him to submit trade deals to Congress for up-or-down votes without amendments. But that means his Democratic critics will have another shot at defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership if it is completed and sent to Congress for approval.

Representative Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who was a leading critic of the trade legislation, said the president should listen to his party and address concerns about the labor and environmental standards and investor protections in the agreement. If not, he said, Democrats will fight him again.

“It is so bad, and we will have so much time to simply explain that to the American people that you might find that we could fuel a very substantial grass-roots revolt,” Mr. DeFazio said.

In the near term, though, Mr. Obama is emerging with a more potent hand on the world stage, having avoided a defeat that would have made him look like a lame duck. The trade talks have come as he is at a critical stage in two other international negotiations, one with Iran to curb its nuclear program, the other with Cuba to restore diplomatic relations.

Mr. Obama’s trade representative, Michael B. Froman, will now renew negotiations with individual countries seeking to join the trade pact to work on outstanding issues. After that, the chief negotiators of all 12 countries will gather in hopes of pushing through the final disputes. Other nations have held off backing down on the toughest issues to see whether Mr. Obama would have the ability to deliver congressional approval.

With the congressional votes behind him, Mr. Froman will be in a position to press Japan to make concessions on its rice market, for example, or Vietnam on stronger workplace standards.

“Congress has made clear what it expects in terms of high-standard trade agreements,” Mr. Froman said in an interview. “With this guidance, we’ve been granted the direction and authority to move forward with our negotiations.”

That does not mean it will be easy. “The negotiators have a pretty good sense of where the landing zone is, but now some key political decisions have to be made,” said Susan Schwab, the trade representative under President George W. Bush.

Victor Cha, another former Bush adviser, who now directs Asian studies at Georgetown University, said that sealing the Pacific trade agreement would transform economic rules across a fast-growing region.

“If he gets this,” Mr. Cha said of the president, “historians will record it as the most important new institution in Asia.”

Correction: June 24, 2015

An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which the Democrats lost the House. It was 2010, not 2012.

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