Trade Deals May Alienate Obama Supporters President Obama had a rare bipartisan economic success when Congress passed three trade deals this week. But some important parts of Obama's political base are not fans, which could have political consequences for the president.
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Trade Deals May Alienate Some Obama Supporters

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Trade Deals May Alienate Some Obama Supporters

Trade Deals May Alienate Some Obama Supporters

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today, President Obama visits Detroit and he's taking along the president of South Korea. They are celebrating the congressional passage of free trade deals with South Korea, as well as with Colombia and Panama. The president's support for those deals marked a rare point of bipartisan agreement with Republicans in Congress. But important parts of President Obama's political base are not fans of these deals, which could have political consequences.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Today's event is at a General Motors plant. The auto industry and its workers are big fans of the South Korean free trade deal, so they're sure to give world leaders a warm welcome. The reception might have been different if the event were at a steel mill.

Leo Gerard is international president of the Steelworkers' Union, which opposed the agreement.

LEO GERARD: 'Cause it's a bad deal, that's why. And we're going to fight like hell to make sure we don't lose jobs. But what it does is, it puts us, again, on an unlevel playing field.

SHAPIRO: In any free trade deal, there are industries that win and those that lose, products that can be exported successfully and those that can be imported more cheaply. President Obama emphasized the winners at a news conference yesterday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: From aerospace to electronics, it will increase American manufacturing exports, including those produced by our small businesses. It will open Korea's lucrative services market. And I'm very pleased that it will help level the playing field for American automakers.

SHAPIRO: While he concludes that this deal is ultimately an economic win for the country, politics are a different equation. Economist Adam Hersh, with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, says there's a long history of union opposition to free trade deals. Unions worry about competing with low-wage workers abroad. Those most likely to be hurt by the deals tend to be older and less educated. They're less able to move or change fields.

ADAM HERSH: They're also in swing states that, over the past two decades, have really seen the ravages of import competition and jobs that have moved overseas. It's these people that are going to be affected and they will be active in voting.

SHAPIRO: For example, America's top steel states include Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Those are also swing states where President Obama depends on union support for his re-election. The administration recognizes that these trade deals may sacrifice some jobs in exchange for growth elsewhere.

Brian Deese, of the president's National Economic Council, says that's why Mr. Obama insisted that the agreement include something called Trade Adjustment Assistance.

BRIAN DEESE: That's a vital program that says for workers who have been affected by trade, that they can get access to training, access to health care.

SHAPIRO: And Deese says the jobs plan that President Obama continues to push includes other measures to help these workers.

DEESE: One of the ideas in the American Jobs Act is for wage insurance, which basically says if you lose a job that pays at a higher salary, the government will come in and pay a portion if you need to take a job that initially starts you at a lower salary.

SHAPIRO: But most workers would rather not have to find a new job in the first place, especially in this economy.

Glenn Hurwitz, of the liberal Center for International Policy, says these deals demoralize some Obama supporters.

GLENN HURWITZ: These free trade deals really throw mud in the eye of core Democratic constituencies. And it's hard for me to see how that adds up to victory for him, especially when he's got declining enthusiasm among other key elements of his coalition.

SHAPIRO: Of course the president's job is to govern, not just campaign. Meredith Broadbent, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says a 21st century economy must be flexible in order to grow. Jobs will inevitably move from one state or one industry, to another, she says.

MEREDITH BROADBENT: I guess we can expect there'll be adjustments in certain areas. But it is more, I think, a function of a fast-moving economy with high productivity, than a direct impact of any potential imports from Korea.

SHAPIRO: And even among the trade deals' opponents, Leo Gerard of the steelworkers' union takes a broad view.

GERARD: I've been married to my wife for 42 years. We don't agree every day and I'm still married to her. And that's my president. And on this issue, I disagree with him tremendously. But he's doing lots of other things that I agree with and I'm going to work real hard to make sure he's re-elected.

SHAPIRO: The Obama campaign can only hope that other frustrated supporters take the same perspective.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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