Voice

Who's Down with TPP?

Support for Obama's signature trade deals is high -- but that doesn't mean getting them done will come easy.

The clock is ticking on the Obama administration's two signature trade initiatives: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 Asian-Pacific nations, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union. These are legacy issues for President Barack Obama, who was criticized in his first term for not aggressively pursuing a trade agenda. TPP is the cornerstone of the administration's much vaunted pivot to Asia. And TTIP has gained new strategic significance in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. Both initiatives enjoy the general backing of the American public, by a margin of more than two-to-one. But elements of both initiatives are also subject to criticism. And the deals face an uncertain future on Capitol Hill, where Congress will eventually have to approve any final agreements.

With the president now in Asia, high on the agenda is resolving differences with Tokyo about market access to Japan for American autos and agricultural products, a U.S. prerequisite for a TPP deal. Meanwhile, U.S. and European Union negotiators have begun to exchange offers in the TTIP talks amid public wariness of the impact of any such agreement on domestic regulatory standards.

Both TTIP and TPP were launched to spur growth and job creation in the wake of the 2008 recession and to counterbalance China's growing influence and competitive advantages. But the proposed trade agreements resurrect old problems that have long bedeviled U.S. trade relations with both Japan and Europe. The opposition to both deals was expected, although its early intensity may have surprised some proponents.  In the end, public views about these trade agreements -- both Americans' support for them in principle and their wariness about the details -- will help determine whether TTIP and TPP are one of President Obama's legacies.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that many Americans are instinctive protectionists, roughly seven-in-ten (71 percent) believe that growing trade between the United States and other nations is a good thing, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Only 23 percent of Americans voice the view that trade is bad for the country. Such findings comport with past Pew Research surveys that show the public backs trade in principle.

And Americans strongly favor increasing trade with both Japan (74 percent), the largest economy among the prospective members of the TPP, and the European Union (72 percent).

To boost that commerce, 55 percent of the public says TPP would be a good thing for the United States and 53 percent hold the view that TTIP would be beneficial. Only about a quarter or less of the public say they don't know enough or have no opinion about these agreements. So, while neither acronym is a household word and the public debate over the merits of both deals has yet to really begin, there is general public support for the notion of improving economic engagement with both Europe and the Asia-Pacific region through deliberate government-led initiatives.

Despite this general backing, the fate of both TPP and TTIP may hinge on the partisan divide over these prospective agreements. Fully 60 percent of Democrats say TTIP is good for the United States, but only 44 percent of Republicans agree. At the same time, 59 percent of Democrats back the trans-Pacific accord, but only 49 percent of the GOP supports it.

This partisan divide, in which Democrats are more supportive of trade than Republicans, runs counter to broadly shared assumptions in Washington that Democrats are protectionists and Republicans are free traders. However, such suppositions about partisan views on trade are not borne out by Pew Research surveys that have shown for some time that Democrats are more supportive than Republicans of growing trade and business ties between the United States and other countries.

Young Americans (65 percent) are also more likely than older ones (49 percent) to say TPP will help the United States. Such findings are in line with earlier Pew Research results showing that young Americans think Asia is more important to the United States than Europe. Older Americans still favor Europe.

Notably, public support for both TTIP and TPP generally exceeds public backing for the North American Free Trade Agreement when it was being negotiated, according to numerous polls taken in 1992 and 1993.

Nevertheless, securing Obama's trade legacy is far from certain. For example, support for TTIP in principle does not translate into majority backing for some of the key objectives of the negotiation. Only 41 percent of Americans support the removal of all tariffs on the transatlantic shipment of goods. And just 39 percent back the elimination of restrictions on transatlantic foreign investment. While roughly three-in-four Americans favor common transatlantic regulatory standards, majorities say they trust U.S. -- rather than European -- environmental, auto, and food standards.

Obama's state visit to Japan provides an opportunity to advance one major pillar of the president's two-pronged trade strategy. A planned visit to Washington later this spring by German Chancellor Angela Merkel will provide another occasion to move the agenda along. But the opportunities for progress may close as other world events demand attention and as midterm elections threaten to render the Obama administration a lame duck.

The American public is generally supportive of both TPP and TTIP. But their reservations suggest eventual congressional approval will still pose challenges. The window of opportunity for Obama's trade legacy is currently open. How long it will stay open is not clear.

ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Shinzo Won't Go

Why the Obama administration needs to learn to live with Japan's fiery prime minister.

Before President Barack Obama leaves Tokyo on Friday, he may want to take a selfie with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan's strongest leader in a decade. Abe's aggressive policies of monetary easing, stimulus spending, and structural reform, nicknamed Abenomics, won plaudits as a new approach to Japan's two-decade long economic slump, even though they resulted in a mere 0.7 percent GDP growth in 2013. His approval ratings have hovered around 60 percent, and his firm stance on the Senkakus, disputed islands claimed by China but administered by Japan, have earned him support from a populace worried about Beijing's military growth and modernization.

Abe's second bite at the prime ministerial apple -- he had a disappointing 366-day term in 2006-2007 -- has resulted in domestic success. Internationally, however, his foreign and security policies have been far more controversial. Not to put too fine a point on it, Abe is loathed and feared in Seoul and Beijing, and his stock in Washington has been shaky. But Abe 2.0 is here to stay. The world needs to learn to live with him, not least because it will probably result in a more stable Asia.

It is a poorly kept secret in Washington that the Obama administration has found it hard to trust Abe. Some of that is his own doing, like his December visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of millions of Japanese war dead lay enshrined, along with 14 Class-A war criminals. Some of Washington's distaste derives from ill-considered and provocative statements by Abe's aides: Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga's February comment that Abe is considering revising a 1993 apology for sexual enslavement of "comfort women" during World War II was especially galling. (Abe later backed away, saying his government would not revise the apology.) There is also discomfort with Abe's openly expressed patriotism, and a concern that he will kindle aggressive nationalism in Japan.

Some of Washington's dislike may trace back to Japan's previous government, headed by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which irritated Washington by needlessly renegotiating a 2006 agreement to rebase U.S. Marines inside Okinawa. But the administration seems to believe that Japan's contributions to future peace and stability in Asia pale in comparison to China's potential. Therefore, the thinking goes, Washington should focus primarily on Beijing.

In some ways, however, Abe is giving the Obama administration what it wants. He has vigorously upgraded Japan's security policy: In December, his administration released the country's first national security strategy, articulating a policy of "proactive pacifism," which sounds to many like an oxymoron. He has established a national security council and has updated and released a proposal from his first term to allow the country to engage in collective self-defense with allies and partners. This would let the county's naval forces, for example, shoot down a missile heading for U.S. Navy ships or American soil.

Particularly pleasing to Washington, Abe has firmly tackled the thorny issue of bases, securing the local approval of a new air station for U.S. Marines in northern Okinawa. While the base remains far from ready, Abe has showed more willingness to disregard anti-American local opinion than his predecessors. He has also stuck firm to a plan of purchasing at least 40 next-generation F-35 fighters as Japan's next front-line air defense. And in April, Tokyo ended its long-standing ban on arms exports, allowing the country's inefficient defense sector to sell in certain foreign markets and co-produce advanced weapons systems with U.S. partners.

More importantly, when Obama sat down with Abe for sushi on April 23, he hopefully recognized that the Japanese prime minister may represent the last, best hope for keeping alive the administration's much touted rebalance, or pivot, to Asia. Since its launch in 2011, U.S. and foreign pundits have criticized the rebalance for being more rhetoric than substance.  But now, it has come under sharper scrutiny in light of a weak U.S. response to the Ukrainian crisis, failure to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war, and negotiations with Iran that many have criticized for being too permissive. The challenges facing the administration have exposed the fallacy that the United States could really "pivot" away from any part of the world and remain a superpower. In short, the United States needs help in Asia.

Only with strong partners willing to share the burdens of maintaining stability in Asia will the rebalance survive. And of all the United States' allies and partners, only Abe seems up to the challenge, and only Japan has the material wealth to make a real difference. A more proactive Japan could help in maritime patrolling, intelligence gathering and sharing, and training of partner forces, among other possibilities. Obama should encourage Abe to become more regionally focused, and to think about how the U.S.-Japan alliance could shape Asia's security environment. Tolerating Abe might give the Obama administration the option of substantively engaging with Asia over the next three years, as opposed to proclaiming U.S. involvement, but never quite delivering.

Reconciliation between U.S. and Japanese leaders might also help relations with South Korea and China. Until Obama's team strong-armed South Korean President Park Geun-hye into a March sit-down with Abe, the two leaders had not talked since coming to power a year earlier. Korean-Japanese relations are at their worst in decades, fueled by mistrust and a lack of resolution over wartime issues. Yet Park, too, must recognize that Japan is naturally South Korea's best partner in Asia. The two societies share similar liberal values, an alliance with the United States, and common threats, including North Korea and China.

A meeting of the minds among the United States, South Korea, and Japan could also have a huge effect on Sino-Japanese relations. Besides a conflict over North Korea, the most likely spot for a clash in East Asia is the Senkakus. Chinese President Xi Jinping has steadily increased the pressure on Japan since assuming office in November 2012, including declaring an air defense identification zone over the Senkakus and a large part of the East China Sea last November. Chinese patrol vessels continue to sail into waters around the islands and are met by Japanese coast guard ships. One accident could result in a clash that would unleash fiery nationalist passions in both countries. Given the lack of trust between Xi and Abe, any clash might be hard to resolve.

Having the world's second- and third-largest economies on a collision course is in no one's interest. Obama's trip to the region will be a success if he inaugurates a new working partnership with Abe, and in doing so, convinces others to accept him as well.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images