Could a Clinton administration pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

President Obama sees the trade deal through the lens of foreign-policy strategy. On the campaign trail, however, Hillary Clinton has walked back her support. 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Hillary Clinton speaks at the 107th National Association for the Advancement of Colored People annual convention in July.

With 12 member countries accounting for about 40 percent of global gross domestic product, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is quite literally the world's biggest free trade proposal. And once this election season ends, the TPP could arise again as a legislative priority at a time when anti-globalization sentiment appears at its highest point in years.

Most of the American public has little notion of what the 30-chapter, 2,000-page agreement entails. A March poll found that, when asked if they supported or opposed the deal, 45 percent of respondents either didn’t have an opinion on it or didn’t know how to respond. But in Washington, both progressives and nationalistic conservatives – and most vociferously, Donald Trump – have pilloried it for provisions they believe would benefit few but corporate interests. 

The former secretary of State came out against the deal shortly after negotiations concluded last fall, PolitiFact notes. Hillary Clinton has ascribed her previous support to an unwillingness to buck the Obama administration during her post within it.

"In looking at it, it didn't meet my standards," she said in an October primary debate. "My standards for more new, good jobs for Americans, for raising wages for Americans. And I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, ‘this will help raise your wages.’ And I concluded I could not."

Although the Obama administration considers the deal key to not only trade, but its "pivot to Asia," many workers' groups consider it a threat. 

"My point of view is that these trade deals have been bad especially for workers in the US," Robert Scott, senior economist at the labor-affiliated Economic Policy Institute, says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "This particular deal looks worse than NAFTA," the trade deal signed by Bill Clinton that created a trade bloc between the US, Canada, and Mexico.

"They encourage the globalization of the economy, which increases exports of capital-intensive goods and increases imports of labor-intensive goods," said Dr. Scott. "Even if balanced, it reduces demand on workers without college degrees. All of it leads to downward pressure on wages."

Some say the cards are in place for its passage, however. In 2015, the Obama administration secured fast-track approval, meaning once the deal is submitted, Congress will hold an up or down vote, rather than allowing lawmakers to debate amendments. And after US trade representatives signed it in February, lawmakers and staff from both sides of the aisle said it could be brought up for a vote after presidential elections in November.

Republican nominee Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic candidate Mrs. Clinton both say they oppose the deal. But many voices on the left suspect that Clinton’s stated support for it while secretary of State – when she said it would be a “gold standard” of trade accords – mean her new opposition may be because of political winds rather than principle. And a New York Times report that her running mate may be Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, who has never deviated from his support for the deal, seems to lend credence to the possibility that she could sign off on the deal if it reaches her desk.

President Obama has defended the deal partly as a means of preempting increased Chinese influence in the rest of Asia, citing China's own efforts to organize free trade agreements in its backyard.

"I understand the skepticism people have about trade agreements, particularly in communities where the effects of automation and globalization have hit workers and families the hardest," Obama wrote in a May op-ed in The Washington Post. But "[t]he world has changed. The rules are changing with it. The United States, not countries like China, should write them."

The leaders of Asian member countries such as Vietnam and Japan are eager for it to pass, says Sara Itagaki, who researches trade, economics and energy affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. "All the attention is on the US – will it pass or not? If the US wants to remain a key player to the region, passing the TPP is kind of an imperative," she told the Monitor.

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