Americans love Europe and free trade. But is the pending trade deal facing choppy waters?

As far as summits go, there may be no more important -- or more boring -- gathering in Washington this year. This week, U.S. and European Union negotiators are meeting in D.C. in the third round of talks aimed at creating a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), effectively a U.S.-EU free trade agreement. Broadening and deepening the transatlantic market has long had notional public support in the United States and currently enjoys overwhelming backing by American foreign policy elites. It also reflects a public commitment to Europe even as the Obama administration pivots toward Asia.

But such backing masks a deep vein of skepticism about the benefits of trade liberalization for average people. So while a free trade deal with Europe -- where wages, working conditions and environmental standards are comparable to those in the United States -- would appear to be an easier sell to the American public than a similar accord with poorer, less advanced economies (like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently under discussion, as well), the devil may still be in the details.

Americans are favorably disposed toward Europe, despite jokes about the French and European anti-Americanism in the last decade. Some 79 percent of the public have a favorable view of Great Britain, 67 percent have a positive perception of Germany -- even 59 percent have a favorable opinion of France. By comparison, only 46 percent have a good view of India and just 33 percent have a favorable perception of China.

When it comes to partners, an even 50 percent of Americans now think Europe is the most important region for the United States, up from 37 percent in 2011, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Only 35 percent now say Asia is the most important area for the United States.

Roughly three-quarters (77 percent) of the American public say growing trade and business ties with other countries is a good thing for the United States. And nearly six-in-ten (58 percent) want to increase trade with Europe, according to a different Pew Research Center poll. A 2007 German Marshall Fund survey found that 64 percent of Americans support efforts to "deepen the economic ties between the EU and the United States by making transatlantic trade and investment easier."

There is even stronger support for TTIP among American foreign policy experts. A recent Pew Research Center survey done in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations found that 93 percent of CFR members surveyed say that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would be a good thing for the United States.

Oddly, these same foreign policy elites place far less stock in transatlantic ties than does the public. Just 12 percent cite Europe as an important future ally or partner for the United States, compared with 37 percent who say India and 34 percent who mention China.

Moreover, while the American public overall sees Europe -- not Asia -- as more important for the United States, a generational divide exists that does not favor Europe. More than half (58 percent) of the public 50 years of age and older cite Europe as a valuable partner, just 43 percent of those aged 18-49 see Europe as a helpful ally in the future.  

Still, TTIP should be a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast. Average Americans are skeptical of the benefits of trade deals. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of the public said free trade agreements lead to job losses. This included 58 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Democrats. And a 45 percent plurality said that free trade deals lowered wages. Notably, Americans did not even buy economists' arguments that heightened trade lowers prices by increasing competition in the U.S. market. Roughly three-in-ten (31 percent) said trade agreements lowered prices, while the same number (31 percent) said they lead to higher prices.

So as free trade negotiations with Europe proceed, Americans seem predisposed toward trade liberalization, especially with the European Union. But concerns about the impact of trade on wages and jobs and a generational pivot toward Asia suggest that TTIP is not a slam dunk. That impinges on the negotiators in Washington -- if they don't come away with a deal that keeps both parties happy, the political window for a transatlantic agreement could eventually close.


The Pulse

Downward-Facing Obama

When the national mood goes south, even the president’s foreign policy successes get negative marks.

Fresh from signing an interim nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration must now sell the agreement to Congress and the American people. Notwithstanding the merits and demerits of the Iranian accord, that task could prove particularly difficult because of the public's sour assessment of President Barack Obama's handling of a range of foreign policy challenges.

The Affordable Care Act online fiasco notwithstanding, Obama's overall job approval rating has fallen over the past year -- including his handling of foreign policy. His job rating is now below 40 percent for nine of 10 foreign policy issues tested in a new public opinion survey, "America's Place in the World," by the Pew Research Center. A companion poll of members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy, was similarly critical of Obama's overall foreign policy track record, but more supportive of his handling of individual challenges.

Foreign policy, once a relative strength for the president, has become a target of substantial criticism. By a 56 percent to 34 percent margin, more Americans disapprove than approve of his handling of foreign policy. This opprobrium is sharply partisan: 82 percent of Republicans disapprove of the president's management of international issues, as do 93 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party. Only 24 percent of Democrats disapprove. In fact, of the 10 foreign policy issues tested, roughly half or more of the Democrats surveyed approve of the Obama's handling of each problem, while a third or less of Republicans approved.

The survey, which was conducted in early November before the recent interim accord with Iran, found just 37 percent of the public approve of Obama's dealings with Iran. And with just 17 percent of Republicans approving of the White House's relations with Tehran, the sales job on the Iranian nuclear agreement could prove particularly difficult.

Just across the border, things aren't much better. Only 30 percent of the public gives the president a thumbs up for his management of the situation in Syria, even though an earlier Pew Research Center survey found that two-thirds of the public supported his September decision to delay airstrikes against Damascus.

And even where boots are on the ground, Obama can't buy a win. As tensions mount with Kabul over the timeline for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the conditions under which Washington would keep a residual military force in the country, Americans show little faith in Obama's handling of the situation in Afghanistan. Just 34 percent think he is doing a good job.

There's a similar sense that the president is mismanaging the ongoing strategic competition with China. More than half (54 percent) of Americans see China's emergence as a world power as a major threat to the United States. But only 30 percent approve of Obama's dealings with Beijing.

The one bright spot on the president's foreign policy report card is the grade he receives for his containment of terrorism. Roughly half (51 percent) the public approves of Obama's handling of that critical issue. But even then the president gets credit from only 33 percent of Republicans, while he is praised by 75 percent of Democrats. Part of this support may be due to the American public's continued backing for the use of military drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Half say it has made the United States safer. A minority (27 percent) say drone actions have made the country less safe.

Like the public, foreign policy experts are critical of Obama's overall foreign policy track record. But they are more supportive of his handling of individual international challenges. Of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations, 44 percent say Obama's management of foreign policy has been worse than they expected, while just 16 percent say it has surpassed their expectations. Two-in-five say Obama has done about as well as they expected. Roughly half of Council members (52 percent) say the Obama administration's approach to foreign policy is not assertive enough, up from just 31 percent four years ago.

Moreover, just 38 percent of Council members approve of Obama's handling of Syria, while 59 percent disapprove. These are by far the president's lowest ratings by foreign policy experts on 10 foreign policy issues tested. And about seven in ten Council members (72 percent) say the reputation of the United States has been weakened by the way it has handled the situation in Syria.

Nevertheless, Obama gets positive job ratings from Council members for his handling of several issues, including terrorism (73 percent), Iran (72 percent) and China (69 percent). And a higher percentage of Council members approve of Obama's handling of Afghanistan than did so four years ago (56 percent now, 42 percent then).

That said, it's unlikely the president takes that much comfort from the lukewarm support of America's elite. Foreign policy, once a relative strength for President Obama, now looks like a weakness. Such public doubts may complicate administration efforts to win congressional backing for the interim nuclear accord with Iran. And it may complicate White House efforts in pursuit of an end to the Syrian civil war and future dealings with China.

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