First 'Obamacare,' now 'Obamatrade'? President's free trade goals in jeopardy.

Obama would make headway in his pursuit of new free trade deals, if only Congress would grant him the authority to 'fast-track' them. His State of the Union speech is likely to ask for that. Here's why he's not likely to get it.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama meets with US Trade Representative Michael Froman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013.

If you disliked "Obamacare," you’re really going to boil over “Obamatrade.”

That is the message from tea-party and other far right Republicans, who are blasting President Obama over his quest for special authority from Congress to move forward in coming months on several international free-trade deals.

New trade deals are key to meeting the president’s 2010 goal of doubling US exports in five years – and trade-related jobs, the administration argues, are well-paying jobs that can help to narrow the rich-poor chasm that Mr. Obama sees as dangerous for America.

In a different era, Republican lawmakers could by and large be counted on – even by Democratic presidents – to support free-trade deals. But not now. Tea party Republicans and many grass-roots conservative organizations are having none of it, calling the administration's trade agenda "Obamatrade."

To critics, ranging from tea party members of Congress and libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, to conservative-causes doyenne Phyllis Schlafly – the president's trade agenda resembles his unpopular Affordable Care Act – in particular, they say, in the way it attempts to usurp congressional authority and expand executive power.

And borrowing a rallying cry from their grass-roots equivalents on the left, the tea partyers are adding in for good measure that the president’s trade proposals will be job killers.

Seeking to capitalize on what they see as the “big lie” of Obamacare – the claim that “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” – these critics warn that under Obamatrade, “If you like your job, you can keep it.”

Obama is widely expected to say Tuesday night, in his State of the Union speech, that he wants Congress to grant him Trade Promotion Authority. Now listen up here. That's also known as fast-track authority, and it means that Congress can only vote up or down on any trade deal the US completes with foreign countries. No amendments or picking and choosing among parts, thank you very much.

Why does Obama want this? Fast-track authority would smooth the way for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new trade deal the Obama administration is negotiating with 11 Asian and Latin American countries in the Pacific basin. Those countries are reluctant to move ahead on the deal, trade officials say, until they know Obama will face a yes-or-no vote on the pact and not a drawn-out debate. TPP is the economic cornerstone of Obama's "Asia pivot" and is instrumental in US efforts to ramp up participation in – and open greater market access to – the world's fastest-growing economic region.

The administration is also negotiating a trade and investment deal with the European Union, as well as global trade measures within the World Trade Organization.

In 2011, Obama got Congress to sign off on trade accords with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, but those deals were initiated under President George W. Bush and benefited from the fast-track authority that the Bush administration barely won in 2002.

Since then, the politics of trade policy have become more complicated.

Obama knew all along that powerful sectors of his own party would oppose him on the Pacific trade pact – especially the staunchest labor and environmental advocates, some trade experts note. Last fall, about three-quarters of House Democrats signed a letter to Obama opposing fast trade authority. No more NAFTA-style trade deals that send US jobs offshore, many of the Democrats said, referring to the 1994 free-trade pact sealed with Mexico and Canada under President Bill Clinton.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that 23 House Republicans sent Obama their own anti-fast-track letter. Since then, Republican opposition appears to have grown. Free-trade critics laud a coming together of the “grass-roots right” and the “grass-roots left" to oppose what they call the pro-business orientations of the “elites” of both parties – and say it means fast-track is all but dead.

The no-fast-track letter from House Democrats “signals the end of a controversial Nixon-era procedure used to railroad contentious trade pacts through Congress,” Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, declared when the letter was made public.

Now Ms. Wallach, whose national consumer advocacy group has long opposed most new trade deals, is adopting Obama’s priority on reducing income inequality to wage war against fast-track trade authority.

“Either Obama can prioritize a battle against income equality or he can push more NAFTA-style trade agreements and the trade authority to railroad them through Congress,” she says, “but he cannot do both.”

Advocates of TPP and other trade deals scoff at the notion that fast-track authority is already a lost cause in Congress.

“I think we’re going to see a conclusion to TPP [negotiations] this year, and I think we’re going to see a deal that can pass Congress,” says Charles Dittrich, vice president for regional trade initiatives at Washington’s National Foreign Trade Council. 

But the president and his administration will have to become much more engaged in the battle, those trade advocates say, and make the case for trade deals to the American public. They will be watching the State of the Union speech for signs the administration plans to fight the fight and make that case.

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