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