Obama defends, pitches TPP trade deal as Democrats balk

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with the leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries in Beijing November 10, 2014. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
President Barack Obama has been on the receiving end of harsh criticism over a pair of trade deals being negotiated among Pacific nations and the EU, mostly from his own party. On Thursday, he defended the deals as “vital” for the middle class.

Speaking to some 200 people at the Organizing for Action advocacy group – set up after Obama’s election to advance aligned interests – Obama said the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be a boon to the US economy and workers. He also deflected critics who argue it is just like the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has been widely criticized by liberals as a drag on job creation.

“That’s not the trade agreement I’m passing,” Obama said, referring to NAFTA. “You need to tell me what’s wrong with this trade agreement, not one that was passed 25 years ago.”

Image from whitehouse.gov

In defending deals like the TPP, which is currently being drafted among 12 Pacific nations including the US, Japan, Vietnam, Canada and Australia, Obama noted that 95 percent of customers are outside of America. He said that the fastest growing markets are in Asia, adding that companies that export products typically pay Americans more than others do.

"When people say that this trade deal is bad for working families, they don't know what they're talking about," Obama said. "I take that personally. My entire presidency has been about helping working families.”

"The Chamber of Commerce didn't elect me twice – working folks did," he said.

The same day Obama spoke, the White House published an infographic depicting how the TPP protects workers and the environment compared to NAFTA.

Supporters of the TPP say it will open up new markets for American products, but opponents have raised concerns over a number of issues, including currency manipulation, environmental protections, internet privacy and more. Additionally, they say it will cost Americans jobs at home while only benefitting corporations.

"I spent a lot of time and a lot of political capital to save the auto industry," Obama said, banging the lectern with a pointed finger for emphasis. "Why would I pass a deal that would be bad for US auto workers?"

Nevertheless, Democrats continued to criticize the president over the TPP, as well as another trade deal being negotiated with the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

"I think if you could get my colleagues to be honest, on the Democratic side, with you ‒ and I think you can mostly ‒ they will say they've been talked to, approached, lobbied and maybe cajoled by more cabinet members on this issue than any issue since Barack Obama's been president," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told the Huffington Post. "That's just sad,”

Brown said the administration should be spending more time pushing a higher minimum wage, strengthening regulations on Wall Street and expanding Medicare.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), an influential lawmaker among the Democratic Party’s left-wing, has also hammered Obama for not publicizing the details of the TPP.

"It's the case that the president says he wants the American people to judge this deal based on the facts, but to do that, he's got to make the deal public. Otherwise the American people can't judge it on the facts. He won't put the facts out there," she said.

Despite objections by Democrats, Congress has moved forward with granting Obama the authority to expedite the approval of international trade deals. With the help of Republicans who generally favor trade deals, panels in the Senate and House of Representatives have passed measures to let the president “fast-track” the deals – meaning Congress would only be able to vote up or down on a finalized agreement and not offer amendments. The measures will move on to a full vote in their respective chambers next.