President Barack Obama delivered a spirited pitch Friday for a controversial 12-nation Pacific trade pact, declaring that congressional Democrats opposed to the deal are “just wrong” and warning that if the U.S. doesn’t act, China will write the rules and lock the United States out.
Speaking at the headquarters of sneaker giant Nike, which pledged to add thousands of jobs in the United States if a trade deal is reached, Obama sought both to confront and to persuade his sharpest critics – who he acknowledged are his fellow Democrats in Congress.
“On this one, they’re like whooping on me,” the president said of Democrats – such as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. – who oppose his push for special trade-promotion authority. He added, “On this issue, on trade, I actually think some of my dearest friends are wrong. They’re just wrong.”
Obama says that without the trade agreement, China will have the upper hand and the U.S. will find it difficult to expand U.S. business ties in the Pacific Rim.
“That’s the choice we face,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to isolate ourselves from world markets. We’ve got to be in there and compete.”
The trip to Oregon came as Obama ramps up the push for votes among Democrats to grant him so-called fast track authority to negotiate the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that would affect 40 percent of the world’s economies. Such authority would limit Congress’ ability to change the agreement once negotiations are completed.
The president singled out for thanks Oregon Democratic Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer, who back granting the authority and joined Obama at the event. He also noted that one of the package’s biggest champions, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was in Washington “quarterbacking” the drive for votes.
“This deal would be a good thing. So let’s ‘just do it,’ ” Obama said, summoning Nike’s trademark phrase.
Opponents complain that previous trade deals have hurt U.S. manufacturing and led to fewer jobs, particularly among factory workers. Critics say the trans-Pacific deal would depress U.S. salaries and do nothing to improve wages for Asians working for U.S. companies that took jobs abroad, including Nike.
Obama said he was sympathetic to the concerns about the loss of manufacturing jobs and he agreed that past trade deals had failed to “live up to the hype.”
But, he added, “the lesson is not that we pull up the drawbridge and build a moat around ourselves. The lesson is . . . that we’ve got to make sure that the trade deals that we do shape are ones that allow us to compete fairly.”
He insisted that the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being contemplated contain protections for American workers that could be enforced.
Obama’s visit to Nike was controversial. The giant sports-equipment manufacturer employs thousands of workers overseas, including in Vietnam, where critics complain of forced labor, child labor and a minimum wage that’s less than 60 cents an hour.
But Obama said countries such as Vietnam would have to raise labor standards for the first time under the pact, including setting minimum wages, passing workplace health and safety standards, and protecting workers’ rights to form unions.
“If you’re a country that wants into this agreement, you have to meet higher standards,” the president said. “If you don’t, you’re out.”
Democrats assailed Obama for holding the event at Nike, saying its outsourcing of jobs has contributed to lower pay in the United States.
“If it passes, the TPP will encourage this exploitative business model in the largest trade agreement in history,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
Before his remarks, Obama met with small business owners who he said would benefit from the pact, which he said would eliminate trade barriers and simplify customs requirements in countries such as Japan. Among the business owners were a woman who runs a greeting card company and a brother and sister who operate a winery.
“Somebody told me that the pinot noir in Oregon is top-notch, right?” Obama said. “Well, I want to make sure Japanese wine consumers have the opportunity to partake in our excellent Oregon wine.”
Critics were largely unmoved by the president’s push, calling Nike’s pledge to create up to 10,000 jobs a “drop in the bucket” compared with the number likely to be lost nationwide if the trade pact is enacted.
“It’s like saying let’s take one step forward and 10,000 steps back,” said Lori Wallach, who’s the global watch trade director of the advocacy group Public Citizen. She charged that the trade package would give companies incentives to move jobs offshore and said the Nike pledge reminded her of similar promises that were made to win passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which opened trade among the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Obama said comparisons to NAFTA were off-point.
“That was a different agreement,” he said. “In fact, this agreement fixes some of what was wrong with NAFTA by making labor and environmental provisions actually enforceable.”
The president criticized Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., though he didn’t name her, for her assertion that giving Obama trade authority might undermine regulations aimed at keeping Wall Street in check. “This is just not true,” he said.
The selection of Nike as the venue for Friday’s appearance helped focus the debate, and not always in the president’s favor.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, noted that Nike produces all of its products overseas and that the trade deal would do nothing to change that.
“This would increase the profits of Nike . . . but do nothing to encourage Nike to create one manufacturing job in this country,” he said.
Nike, too, worked to assure skeptics that the trade pact would open the door to high-paying U.S. jobs.
“Free trade opens doors. It removes barriers. It creates jobs,” said Nike CEO Mark Parker, who introduced Obama.
Parker said the possible trade deal would remove tariffs on U.S.-produced footwear, allowing the company to speed up development of advanced manufacturing methods here.
That would produce up to 10,000 manufacturing and engineering jobs, Parker said. It also would produce thousands of construction jobs, the company said.
As the company develops advanced manufacturing techniques, it said, it also would demand a new supply chain, creating another 40,000 jobs.