WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama’s top economic adviser says the White House will make a last-ditch sales pitch to Congress about his proposed trade deal with Asia: “What’s the alternative?”
Obama administration officials continue pressing lawmakers to take up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after the election, but Jason Furman, chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters on Friday they know the proposed pact “absolutely faces challenges.”
A series of what the Harvard-educated economist calls “political crosscurrents” will make it difficult for TPP to reach the House or Senate floor before the president leaves office on January 20.
Since Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and GOP nominee Donald Trump both oppose it, the deal likely would die as soon as the new president is sworn in.
On Thursday Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican-Kentucky, drove yet another nail in the trade plan’s coffin, declaring anew “if we were going to have another discussion about trade, it would have to be led by whoever the next president is.”
Because the agreement can’t be renegotiated, Furman advised against putting TPP on the shelf and possibly burying it. Some lawmakers—Democratic and Republican—have raised concerns about specific provisions, such as ones on tobacco, how its rules would be enforced abroad and others.
White House officials are still suggesting that McConnell and other members could have a change of heart after Election Day, when a TPP vote would be easier with the prospect of facing trade-skeptical voters who believe globalization is a drag on their lives behind them.
“The vote that we’re asking Congress for isn’t, ‘Are you for globalization or are you against it?’” Furman said. “It’s are you for TPP or against TPP?”
Furman offered a window into the administration’s message to lawmakers, which essentially is a warning that there’s no other Asian trade deal to fall back on—and America will lose economically because “the rest of the world won’t wait for the United States to get its act together.”
The administration plans to continue making the case to lawmakers that “China will move forward with trade agreements that don’t include the US,” as will America’s allies, he said.
White House officials also are telling members that the US faces a $94-billion bill each year it opts against approving TPP.
The public sales pitch and the one to Congress also will attempt to shift the conversation about TPP away from an “abstract debate” about trade and globalization, and one to the White House’s contentions on how it would benefit individual segments of the US economy.
On the health of the broader economy, Furman said the White House concludes it is “doing well.” He pushed back against the notion, often pushed by Trump and other Republicans, that the American people are not feeling the effects of a still-slowly recovering economy by pointing to relatively high consumer confidence figures.
Still, Furman acknowledged that “people expect more.”
With voters skeptical about the economy and their own prospects, Democrats are concerned the mood could put Trump in the White House.
As Obama hits the campaign trail in October, expect him to deliver a more full-throated version of his economic aide’s message: “Our argument is we’ve made it a lot better.”
Also expect Obama to pin ample blame on congressional Republicans, and urge voters to give Democrats control of the Senate. Furman knocked the GOP for not raising the federal minimum wage, not passing TPP, not spending more to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, nor overhauling the business tax code.
“We have made a lot of progress against an enormous amount of political headway,” he said, sidestepping a question about whether administration officials see the slow growth as mostly the legislative branch’s fault. Republican lawmakers often have pinned some of the blame on what they see as a “deluge of burdensome mandates and regulations during the Obama administration,” as Sens. John Thune, Republican-San Diego, and Dan Coats, Republican-Indiana, put it in a joint statement.
Furman contends the administration eliminated and streamlined regulations, creating “benefits that enormously exceed their costs.”
Image credits: AP/Carolyn Kaster