WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday admitted to staunch opposition from organized labor toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership and said he would have to cobble together a bipartisan coalition, including GOP leadership, to get the trade pact passed.
Speaking to a group of the nation’s governors at the White House, Obama said he has repeatedly tried to make the case to unions and labor groups about the benefits of TPP, but recognizes he still doesn’t have their support.
“Labor unions — and I am a big labor guy — are not happy with me on this,” Obama said. “They disagree with me because they have memories of this weakening of the manufacturing base in America [linked to past trade deals]. No matter how much I indicate that the facts show this will improve the position of American workers and we will slowly raise labor standards overseas as a consequence, they are adamant in their opposition, which means in order to get this passed through Congress, we will have to depend on a set of strong pro-trade Democrats who recognize the importance of trade to their economies and their…constituents, and Republicans who, historically at least, have been in favor of the free market and free trade.”
He said that none of the criticism leveled at TPP has shown “how we’re better off than the current status quo,” where countries maintain high tariffs on many U.S. exports.
Trade ministers signed the TPP earlier this month. It includes the U.S., Australia, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Vietnam, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand and aims to remove barriers to trade to encompass nearly 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product if enacted.
“What they argue against is old trade deals,” Obama told the governors. “I keep on explaining to them. ‘Look, I can’t do anything about what may have happened…years ago, but I can do something about what is going on right now.'”
Obama added that TPP strengthens labor and environmental protections for Mexico and Canada beyond what is contained in the North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal that unions strongly opposed more than 20 years ago.
Criticism and concerns about TPP raised by leaders and presidential candidates from both parties have also become hurdles.
“With respect to tobacco, we said very explicitly in this trade deal that any country that regulates tobacco is not somehow violating the trade agreement as long as it’s done fairly, as long as they are not discriminating against American tobacco companies versus their own or those of other countries, but as a public health matter they can regulate tobacco,” he said. “That raises sensitivities in Kentucky.”
The comment was directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who has raised concerns about the tobacco provisions in TPP.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we can still get it done,” Obama added. “Leader McConnell and Speaker [Paul] Ryan both have been supportive of this trade deal. They’ve had some concerns along the margins on the trade deal.”
In addition, Obama said, “The presidential campaigns have created some noise and roiled things a little within the Republican party, as well as within the Democratic party. I think we should just have a good, solid healthy debate about it.”
He said the administration plans to send implementing legislation on TPP to Congress this year.
“My hope is that we can get the votes,” Obama said. “It is inconceivable if you are for example, you are in California, that you don’t want a Trans-Pacific Partnership that ensures the gateway for commerce in the Pacific is open to California business and workers for decades to come. It’s inconceivable that you would be opposed to that.”
He questioned criticism of TPP by longshoremen in California and used it as another example that is heating up the debate on the trade deal.
“Where do you think your jobs are coming from? It’s from moving stuff off those containers onto trucks and rail to fan out all across the country. This creates jobs for you,” Obama said. “That gives you some sense of some of the emotions that sometimes are blocking this up.”