Is Obama's TPP Push Succeeding? How Trump (and Progressives) Might Be Impacting the President's Last-Ditch Effort

President Obama's campaign to enact the TPP before he leaves office is taking advantage of two different anti-trade stances: the blustery isolationism of GOP nominee Donald Trump and a narrow analysis put forward by some progressives. There's reason to believe that Obama's strategy is actually working: a recent poll shows that as Americans become more familiar with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, they are increasing their support of it.


This may seem counterintuitive at first glance, given that Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders all oppose the deal. However, President Obama, enjoying higher than average approval ratings for a president in the final months of his second term, has been making the case for the TPP recently and is trying to get it ratified during his final months as part of his legacy. 

Obama is taking advantage of two different but related factors this campaign season. First is Donald Trump's xenophobia and the isolationist rhetoric that has caused his plummeting polling numbers.

"The question is, do you like this open society where lots of different people get to come together and cooperate, or do you want to be a nationalist and close off America from all external influences like Donald Trump does," says Tobita Chow, a Chicago-based activist and chair of the People's Lobby. "This is a strategy that works very well with Trump. If we had the typical mainstream corporate Republican  as the nominee then that would not be something Obama could play off of."

One only has to look at the positive reception to Obama's slow jam on the Tonight Show to see how Obama is trying to sell the TPP as hip, cosmopolitan and forward-looking in contrast to Trump's barely concealed white nationalism.

"There's a lot of people who don't know much about the TPP. If the only rebuttal to the TPP you're hearing is Donald Trump's isolationist, xenophobic 'I wanna build a wall,' and tariffs on Chinese goods, then you might have a sense that you don't want to be associated with that kind of future," says Celeste Drake, a trade and globalization specialist with the AFL-CIO.

But Trump isn't doing all the work for Obama. Progressives are guilty of failing to offer up an alternative to corporate-led globalization and free trade agreements. Just take a look at the Bernie Sanders campaign.

"Our (progressive) framing is playing into Obama's framing and we're not countering it in the way that we need to," says Chow. "I was critical of Sanders on the TPP and I think he got a lot of pushback and he became more internationalist as the campaign went on. He improved his messaging and started to talk about raising the standard of living for people in other countries."

Opposition to the TPP isn't enough. Progressives need to offer up a true alternative. As of now, the TPP's backers are trying to sell the deal as progressive, particularly in the area of labor and environmental protections. But there's little reason to believe that is the case, especially for workers in developing countries.

"What we've seen in trade deals in the past is that the labor chapters are quite an ineffective way to guarantee labor protections for workers in developing countries," says Angella MacEwen, senior economist with the Canadian Labour Congress and co-author of a recent report critical of the TPP's labor chapter. "NAFTA had a labor cooperation agreement, it was a side agreement, it wasn't in the main trade deal. In order to get NAFTA passed in the U.S. they were pressured to have labor and environmental agreements. Complaints are brought forward, there are rulings on them and recommendations made, but the teeth to enforce anything just aren't there. Under the new trade agreements there are more teeth there, but nothing has ever gotten to that stage. There's still a lengthy cooperation process you have to go through."

Just look at the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Signed in 2005, it was hailed by the U.S. government at the time as having labor protections that were "world-class, best ever." The reality turned out to be very different.

"We have a case where the government of Guatemala is not enforcing its labor laws. The AFL-CIO, in conjunction with Guatemalan labor unions filed a case back in 2008 (through CAFTA). It's over eight years old now and right now our partners in Guatemala on the ground tell us that things have not improved. So the eight years of talking, threatening, and consulting have not resulted in a situation where their labor laws are being more effectively enforced," says Drake.

The simple fact is that labor and environmental chapters in trade deals are designed to fail. "Compare how willing we are to enforce the corporate rights aspects of these deals on governments, and how hesitant we are to enforce the labor rights or environmental rights on other governments. The mechanism to enforce corporate rights in these deals we've negotiated are far stronger, have far more teeth, and act far more quickly than the mechanisms we have to try to protect workers or the environment. It's certainly not designed to be as effective as the rest of the deal," says MacEwen.

For progressives, coming up with a coherent alternative to trade deals isn't rocket science, but it will require the jettisoning of long-used tactics.

"Buy American," "buy Canadian," or "buy Australian" has been the reflexive rhetoric of labor movements in developed countries trying to deal with deindustrialization. This type of economic nationalism needs to be dropped.

"It sets workers in the U.S. or in Canada as competitors with workers in other countries and makes them opponents in this zero-sum game. Either we create jobs in Canada or the U.S., or we create jobs in Vietnam or China. Either we create more poverty and unemployment here or we do it over there. Somebody has to suffer, the only question is who are we going to make suffer?" says Chow. "The alternative is to stop buying into this narrative that workers in different countries are doomed to be competitors with each other and shift to a framework of how do we turn workers in different countries into comrades rather than competitors? How can we create an agenda that workers here and there have a shared self interest in?"

And the fight against the TPP already seems to be laying the groundwork for more transnational organizing against trade deals. There has been a significant of collaboration among the labor movements of the TPP countries. "We've been working from the very beginning, first to try to shape the TPP. We got together with the trade union movements of Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and Malaysia and wrote our own labor chapter for the agreement," says Drake.

And for concrete policy, there is a need to think boldly and globally. "In our organization we're developing an idea for a global minimum wage system or global living wage system. What this would amount to is not all workers around the world making the exact same wage but there would be a formula and a set of standards that would apply globally and would work to set different wage levels around the world. That is the sort of thing you could write into a multilateral trade agreement like the TPP. You could also have enforceable labor rights that have teeth, that are not just words on a page,"says Chow.

There's no reason for these demands to be abstract and feel remote to workers on the local level. "A lot of these demands can also be linked to campaigns at the state and local level around the environment, wage standards, and the right to organize," says Chow.

Ultimately it will be up to activists to craft an appeal that is global in scope but also speaks to American workers' immediate concerns. It's certainly not impossible to do this. Younger workers who want to be part of a globalized world but are also feeling the pressures of neoliberal globalization could be won over on this basis.

The end of the Obama years and the state of the current presidential race certainly point out that American politics and society are undergoing a great upheaval and that issues stemming from the Great Recession has not been adequately addressed. With great political shifts happening, now is the time for the left to seize the agenda on trade and articulate a a new international economic order instead of purely being on the defensive.

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