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While anyone with any sense is in favor of expanded trade, the devil is in the details. Not everyone wins. Companies go under, plants close, workers lose jobs or see reduced wages.

The current debacle of President Obama’s attempt to secure fast-track authority to complete negotiation of the Trans-Pacific partnership is in large part a casualty of the shortcomings of two previous trade agreements: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

NAFTA is a regional pact between Canada, Mexico and the United States that was largely negotiated under the first President Bush, and pushed through Congress by Bill Clinton, largely with Republican support, and notwithstanding his having been critical of it during the campaign of 1992. Supporters argued that NAFTA would mean more jobs for Americans; opponents predicted the opposite. While certainly important sectors, such as big-time agriculture, have benefited, it is also clear that many workers in older industries have lost jobs as plants have been moved to Mexico.

The president would have been well advised to back off when it became clear that the Republicans could not carry the issue on their own. But getting good advice has been a problem for Obama, and his own instincts haven’t helped, either.

Much the same has happened with the WTO, which was negotiated during the 1990s. Unlike NAFTA, WTO is a worldwide agreement. But the same patterns have appeared, with American companies sending many jobs offshore even while some sectors—such as high-tech electronics—have done well.

So President Obama has had a major selling job to do, particularly with his fellow Democrats. The Republicans were not supposed to be a problem: the whole idea of such trade pacts as TPP is a core interest of the GOP’s big business backers. But we should not be surprised to learn that about 50 Republican representatives (and some few senators) would vote against their own mothers to spite Obama.

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Thus, in a Congress fully under Republican control, on an issue that Republicans should all favor, Obama had to wrangle Democratic votes on an issue with only negative resonance in most Democratic districts. That he failed to get enough of those votes should not be surprising. To make the negotiations with other countries possible, he had to insist on keeping the draft agreement secret (though members of Congress could read it in a secure room). When trusted senators and representatives who had seen the language maintained their opposition, the tendency of Democrats to be skeptical at best was confirmed.

The Obama White House, and Obama personally, compounded the weak hand they were dealt by how they played it. Apparently, after losing the House last November, the administration decided (reasonably, on the face of it) that they should be able to work with the GOP leadership to pass TPP. But Obama has consistently underestimated the unremitting hostility of the most conservative Republicans, and he apparently did it again in pressing ahead in spite of signs that the leadership would not be able to corral their troops.

He pressed on, counting on his ability to rally the Democrats. But this has been an administration singularly inept in its relations with its congressional allies. There was little good will toward Obama to counter the prevailing skepticism toward trade pacts, both in Congress and among constituents back home.

The president would have been well advised to back off when it became clear that the Republicans could not carry the issue on their own. But getting good advice has been a problem for Obama, and his own instincts haven’t helped, either.

If Obama wants to get this thing through, he needs to give the skeptics confidence that jobs and the environment will really be protected to an extent not achieved by NAFTA or WTO. Back in 2009, he could have asked for trust, but no longer. He has spent too much political capital trying to please the Republicans.

john peeler

John Peeler

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