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 some Asian countries: “What’s the alternative?”
Obama administration officials continue pressing lawmakers to take up the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the election, but Jason Furman, chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters Friday that they know the proposed pact “absolutely faces challenges.”
A series of what the Harvard-educated economist calls “political crosscurrents” will make it difficult for the TPP to reach the House or Senate floor before the president leaves office on Jan. 20. Since Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her GOP rival Donald Trump both oppose it, the deal would likely die as soon as the new president is sworn in.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky drove yet another nail in the trade plan’s coffin, declaring anew that “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 the TPP on the shelf and possibly burying it. Some lawmakers — Democratic and Republican — have raised concerns about specific provisions, such as ones on tobacco and how the accord’s rules would be enforced abroad, among others.
White House officials are still suggesting that McConnell and other lawmakers 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 similar 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 U.S.,” as will America’s allies, he said. White House officials are also telling members that the U.S. faces a $94 billion bill for each year it opts against approving the TPP.
The public sales pitch and the one to Congress will also attempt to shift the conversation about the TPP away from an “abstract debate” about trade and globalization to one on how it would benefit individual segments of the U.S. economy as the White House contends.
On the health of the broader economy, Furman said the White House concludes that it is “doing well.” He pushed back against the notion, often promoted 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 the TPP, not spending more to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, and not 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 have often fixed some of the blame on what they see as a “deluge of burdensome mandates and regulations during the Obama administration,” as Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Dan Coats of Indiana put it in a joint statement in April.
Furman contends that the administration eliminated and streamlined regulations, creating “benefits that enormously exceed their costs.”