3. Will Obama wimp out on trade? The administration is boasting about all the ways the president can take direct action to get around Republicans in the House. He’ll do anything he can to get the economy going. He has both a pen and a phone. One thing he could do to help the economy is to fight for authority to make trade deals without congressional interference. It is within his power to do so and has little to do with congressional Republicans who support the idea. But he may not reach for the phone—or at least he won’t engage with the gusto he’s putting toward far smaller items he outlined in the State of the Union. Trade promotion authority, sometimes known as “fast-track,” is the necessary requirement to finalize the trade discussions with Pacific Rim countries that are currently moving along briskly and the European trade deal that’s in a far earlier stage of the process. The administration argues that both will give a real boost to the economy.
Trade is always a tough issue for Democrats. Unions worry this will threaten their workers and environmentalists worry it will lead to greater damage to the planet. “Everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Some Democrats are making the argument similar to the one Republicans are on immigration: Let’s not have this ugly fight in the party during an election year when we should be fighting with the other side. Perhaps, but the Obama administration has argued that these trade deals will help the economy, so the sooner the better. The question is: Will politics win out? U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough have been lobbying lawmakers, but lobbyists for business and politicians who support free trade in both parties are asking for more direct pressure from the president. Will Obama make the push? Given how comfortable Democrats are bucking him, would it matter if he did?
I asked Obama's top economic adviser Jason Furman how important it was to have trade promotion authority pass in 2014 in order to achieve the best result with ongoing trade deals. “What’s important is that as Ambassador Froman is negotiating with our partners that he can make it very clear to them that as we’re asking for concessions from other countries that we’re going to be able to deliver and implement those agreements in the United States and that's why it is important to strengthen our hand of our negotiator by having forward momentum,” he said.
Momentum toward authority is different than authority. No one thinks the promise of a congressional vote has the leverage-making power of an actual deal. “Very few of our U.S. trading partners are going to come to the table with their best offer if it is still possible that the United States Congress could come along and undermine that deal,” says Bill Frenzel, trade expert at the Brookings Institution and a former member of Congress. “If the president signs off on an agreement and he doesn’t have TPA, he won’t be signing off on the best agreement we can get.” Rather, the administration appears to be pre-emptively trying to finesse the practical impact of the stall in Congress and the limited power the president has to change the situation in an election year. That suggests trade authority is something that is going to remain on the president’s wish list for a time to come.