Free-Trade Pacts Scramble Partisan Politics-As-Usual

President Obama shakes hands with South Korean leader Myung-bak at the White House a day after Congress passed three free trade pacts, including one with the Asian nation.  i i

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President Obama shakes hands with South Korean leader Myung-bak at the White House a day after Congress passed three free trade pacts, including one with the Asian nation.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama shakes hands with South Korean leader Myung-bak at the White House a day after Congress passed three free trade pacts, including one with the Asian nation.

President Obama shakes hands with South Korean leader Myung-bak at the White House a day after Congress passed three free trade pacts, including one with the Asian nation.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The three free trade deals supported by President Obama and passed Wednesday by large margins by both chambers scramble the usual politics in Washington which is why they have such broad bipartisan support.

Both Obama and Congress' Republican leaders argue for the lifting of trade barriers as one of the best ways to boost U.S. exports and positively affect U.S. businesses and workers.

Indeed, the president's goal of doubling U.S. exports over a five-year period can probably only be accomplished if tariffs and quotas on U.S. goods and services abroad are reduced.

That target looks increasingly unreachable given the fragility facing a number of overseas economies.

But removing obstacles to trade with South Korea, Colombia and Panama certainly should get the U.S. closer to reaching Obama's aim.

Politically speaking, his support for the free trade deals first negotiated during the Bush administration likely won't help Obama with parts of his political base, especially within organized labor.

Besides concerns over the potential loss of additional U.S. jobs due to trade, as happened with the North American Free Trade Act in the 1990s, U.S. labor officials criticized the human rights provisions in the pact with Colombia as not going far enough to protect union members, teachers and journalists who have been murdered there for supporting labor rights.

But Obama can argue that the agreements contain language to protect Colombians and that trade adjustment assistance for displaced workers was extended.

And he can also make the case that some of his decisions, like federal government support for restructuring GM and Chrysler saved tens of thousands of jobs.

Meanwhile, Congress' Republican leaders also rankled some of the populists in their political base who suspiciously view such trade agreements as yet another giveaway to corporations and example of crony capitalism.

But the agreements will appeal to the free-market conservatives in Republican ranks.

So the partisan lines on free trade are anything but clear. Polling certainly doesn't necessarily provide anything like a strong signal about where Americans are on the issue.

A USA Today/Gallup poll in January, for instance, asked those surveyed if they favored or opposed a free trade pact with South Korea. Fifty three percent said they favored it while 35 percent said they were opposed.

Meanwhile, a CNN/Opinion Research poll from November 2010 found asked if they viewed foreign trade as an opportunity for U.S. exports or a threat because of imports. Forty one percent said they saw it as more an opportunity while 50 percent saw trade as more of a threat.

Americans are clearly ambivalent. And when voters seem largely split, there's more room in policy debates for lobbyists, and the campaign contributions their industries represent, to exert greater influence.

As he heads into 2012, the agreements will give Obama something with which to blunt Republican criticism that he is anti-business. Business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers badly wanted the trade deals. Now they have them.

That can only help Obama as well as congressional Republicans as they both work hard to raise money from corporate interests for their re-election campaigns.

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