In what may be his final prime-time address to both houses of Congress, President Barack Obama called Tuesday for swift action on the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, framing the deal as a way to open overseas markets to U.S. goods and level the playing field with China.
“With TPP, China does not set the rules in that region; we do," Obama said in his State of the Union address. "You want to show our strength in this new century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it. It's the right thing to do.”
But the pending deal with 12 Pacific trading countries faces an uphill battle in Congress, where there is opposition from lawmakers of both parities who worry that American companies can't compete against Asian nations where wages are lower.
“I, for one, have a significant number of concerns about that agreement and what it will do in making sure the playing field is level with the United States, our products and products that come in from those Asian countries,” said Representative Rob Wittman, a Virginia Republican.
Some of the president's strongest critics are members of his own party and labor groups who describe TPP as a net job killer. But U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman argues that TPP would cut tariffs on U.S.-made goods and boost U.S. exports.
“Every $1 billion of exports supports 5,000 to 7,000 jobs in the U.S," he said. "Those jobs pay 18 percent more on average than non-export-related jobs. So by opening markets, leveling the playing field, we’re helping to support more good-paying jobs here in the United States, which is exactly what this is all about.”
While a Pacific trade deal could indeed lead to job losses in the U.S., economists say such losses would more than likely be offset by new jobs in other sectors. The greater obstacle may be politics, with some lawmakers saying the chances of a TPP deal being approved by a divided Congress — in an election year — are less than 50 percent.