Obama’s SOTU Didn’t Mention the TPP – Is the Trade Consensus Breaking?

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with House Speaker John Boehner before he delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Jan. 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

For 30 years, a bipartisan consensus supported one corporate trade agreement after another that helped hollow out America’s middle class. But if this year’s State of the Union address is any indication, that consensus, if not dead, has become gravely ill.

Last night, Obama hardly mentioned trade. He didn’t name the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) — two mega-trade deals that his administration has pushed in past years.

Obama’s only reference to trade was almost pro forma – it seemed like a throwaway line included only because a president has to say something about trade. Here are the two times “trade” appeared in his speech:

When 98 percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create more jobs. We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped “Made in the USA.”

All very vague. Contrast that with his 2013 State of the Union address:

To boost American exports, support American jobs and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union — because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.

A year earlier, Obama used three paragraphs of his speech to tout trade deals he’d signed with Korea, Panama and Colombia, and promised to enforce the terms of existing agreements with “countries like China.”

Of course, a more robust call for completing new trade deals would have been incredibly discordant in a speech ostensibly focused on rising inequality and limited social mobility. As Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (with whom we recently spoke about the TPP) wrote, “Economists of all stripes agree that US trade policy has been one of the major contributors to growing US income inequality.”

There really is no disagreement about that — the only debate is about the degree of the effect. A study published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics — an early supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on which TPP is modeled — estimated that as much as 39 percent of the observed growth in US wage inequality is attributable to trade trends. Other studies have posited greater and lesser contributions.

But the president’s speech was also a reflection of how difficult his campaign to push TPP and TTIP through Congress has become. At a time when the public is increasingly suspicious of allowing corporate lobbyists to write binding treaties behind closed doors, a speech designed in large part to help Obama recover from a rocky 2013 was no place to talk about the supposed wonders of these deals.

It appears, at least for the rest of Obama’s term, that the bipartisan consensus on trade is running the other way. A hundred and fifty-one Democrats on Capitol Hill signed a letter promising to oppose “fast track” trade authority (without which these deals would be all but impossible to finalize). At the same time, the tea party wing of the Republican Party has dubbed the TPP “Obamatrade,” and is warning, in the words of one “analyst” on the Tea Party News Network, that TPP is a “weapon aimed straight at our Constitution, straight at our sovereignty and straight at Christians around the world.”

That the tide may be turning should come as little surprise. Advocates for the TPP and TTIP are making the exact same promises that those who championed NAFTA made in the early 1990s, and none of them have come to fruition in the 20 years since it was ratified.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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