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Trump, Democrats And The Left Killed Obama’s Biggest Trade Deal

Kermit Williams Jr. | 1/30/2017, 11:51 a.m. | Updated on 1/30/2017, 11:51 a.m.
On Monday, President Donald Trump formally withdrew the United States from one of his predecessor’s signature foreign policy projects, ending ...

On Monday, President Donald Trump formally withdrew the United States from one of his predecessor’s signature foreign policy projects, ending an eight-year endeavor Barack Obama had hoped would reshape American influence on four continents.

It was, oddly, a victory for the Democratic Party.

Labor unions, environmental groups, public health experts, liberal economists and consumer watchdogs had all been denouncing the Trans-Pacific Partnership for years. The overwhelming majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate repeatedly voted to block it. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) both officially opposed the trade pact with 11 other nations during the 2016 election. Anti-TPP protesters shouted down speakers during the Democratic National Convention last summer, a spectacle overshadowed only by Michelle Obama’s soaring speech that same night.

President Obama lost the Trans-Pacific Partnership because his closest allies spurned him, buying time for an unforeseen political enemy to eventually deliver the killing blow. Liberal Democrats in Congress and progressive activists won a long-shot battle against a popular president amid a sea change in economic thought.


When Obama called for the TPP at the outset of his administration, he presented it as a tough new policy targeting China. The U.S. would win allies by creating a new trading bloc to counter the emerging superpower’s growing influence in the region. This, the thinking went, would protect American interests and spread American ideas about human rights and democracy.

These lofty political ideals were complicated almost immediately. When the administration began to corral global leaders, it made no apologies for courting notoriously repressive regimes as potential partners in the anti-China bulwark. The administration postponed big questions about political reform, focusing instead on securing robust new investor rights as a bedrock principle of any final trade deal. American negotiators demanded that all parties to the TPP grant multinational corporations the right to challenge domestic laws and regulations before an international tribunal if they believed that government rules had hampered their investments. The Obama team also pressed hard to enhance the power of pharmaceutical companies and other intellectual property owners to raise prices by wielding state-sponsored monopolies.

The ultimate economic impact of a long-term treaty among 12 nations covering every aspect of commercial life was difficult to forecast, but the fundamental message was clear. Anyone who wanted to join this new alliance with the United States had to be willing to expand the political power of the wealthy.

The Obama administration didn’t invent this idea. The text of the TPP was based on the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, a joint effort from Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who believed the world was suffering from a “capital shortage” holding back global development. Owners of stocks, bonds and intellectual property rights were being unduly restrained by tariffs and excessive government rules, the argument went. Liberating them would unleash a new era of investment and, inevitably, progress.

This idea undergirded the 1990s free trade explosion. One of Clinton’s chief arguments in favor of ushering China into the World Trade Organization in 2000 was the promise of expanded trade leading to democratic reform. It became the bipartisan consensus inside the Beltway, one that just happened to offer immediate rewards for the donor classes in both parties.