Jan 2014 10:54 AM PST
Prepare for a State of the Union oddity: Democratic members of Congress sitting in silence while Republicans rise to cheer President Obama's call for Congress to grant him new powers.
A letter released today signed by a stunning array of more than 550 Democratic base organizations reiterates the perverse situation. Despite widespread opposition from congressional Democrats, Obama is expected to call on Congress to delegate Fast Track authority to him. The extraordinary trade authority, which Congress has refused to grant for 15 of the past 20 years, would suspend normal congressional procedures for consideration of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Obama hopes to sign soon.
Today's letter is signed by a veritable who's who of the organizations that worked their tails off to elect Obama and/or who provide his policy initiatives the support to pass: from MoveOn and CREDO to the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME, UAW, Teamsters, Carpenters, United Steelworkers, American Federation of Teachers, and the Communications Workers of America to the Sierra Club, 350.org, and Greenpeace to the National Farmers Union, National Consumers League, Public Citizen and TransAfrica - and the policy shops of the Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and numerous Catholic orders. The letter is notable for the number of signatory organizations that have not been involved in past "trade" fights.
This gets to the major policy collision that only adds to the incongruity of the political situation: the TPP would worsen income inequality. Yup, the main theme of Obama's SOTU has been widely advertised to be his battle against growing American income inequality. But economists of all stripes agree that U.S. trade policy has been a major contributor to growing inequality. A study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which supports the TPP, has estimated that as much as 39 percent of the observed growth in U.S. wage inequality is attributable to trade trends.
The latest - and stunning - addition to that chorus: Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who yesterday urged his massive Facebook following to battle Fast Track and TPP, which he called NAFTA-on-steroids. "[T]his massive deal [TPP] would further erode the jobs and wages of working and middle-class Americans while delivering its biggest gains to corporate executives and shareholders."
Today's letter, organized by the Citizens Trade Campaign, shows the political muscle behind the campaign to make sure TPP is not Fast Tracked: "After decades of devastating job loss, attacks on environmental and health laws and floods of unsafe imported food under our past trade agreements, America must chart a new course on trade policy. To accomplish this, a new form of trade authority is needed that ensures Congress and the public play a much more meaningful role in determining the contents of U.S. trade agreements..."
And, don't expect ALL of the GOP to stand and cheer Fast Track. Already several dozen Republican House members have announced their opposition to new Fast Track powers for Obama. A conservative grassroots campaign is gearing up against Fast Track and TPP.
What could unite the A-Z of the Democratic base and conservative grassroots activists? Um, could be the 20 devastating years of NAFTA damage experienced by American workers and communities across the political spectrum. Fast Tracking NAFTA-on-steroids is a hard sell after NAFTA fueled an explosion of the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico and Canada to $181 billion by 2012, resulting in a net American loss of one million jobs. And it is not news that NAFTA increased income inequality by transforming the composition of jobs available to the 63 percent of American workers without college degrees from higher wage manufacturing to low-wage service sector.
And, then there is the inconvenient mess of Obama's only major trade deal to date, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. That deal was premised on the same NAFTA model as TPP. In his 2011 SOTU, Obama promised the pact would expand U.S. exports to Korea. In the pact's first year, exports dropped ten percent, imports soared and the U.S. trade deficit with Korea grew 37 percent, equating to a net loss of approximately 40,000 more U.S. jobs.
Will President Obama choose to mount what will need to be a massive campaign to overcome widespread opposition to Fast Track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership? And probably fail even so?
Or, will he choose to focus his efforts on reducing income inequality for millions of Americans?
It remains to be seen what his legacy will be. But one thing is clear: President Obama can't have it both ways.