President Obama sought to calm progressive fears about his administration's push for free trade on Wednesday, saying critics of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have been "whoopin" on the deal - but they simply don't know what they're talking about.
"There have been a bunch of critics about trade deals generally and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and what's interesting is, typically they're my friends coming from my party," the president acknowledged during a speech at the Oregon headquarters of Nike, a company that's strongly supported the proposed deal. "On minimum wage, and on job training, and on clean energy, and on every progressive issue, they're right there with me, and then on this one, they're like whoopin' on it."
Many Democrats opposed to TPP worry it would undermine labor and environmental standards at home and around the world, and that it would push companies to ship U.S. jobs overseas.
But critics of the deal, Mr. Obama said, are flatly "wrong."
The president said the agreement would actually help create American jobs by opening new markets to U.S. exports, and that it would raise labor and environmental standards in the 12 nations that are participating. In Vietnam, for example, the president said TPP would force the government to implement a minimum wage and protect the rights of workers to organize unions for the first time ever. That means TPP would actually benefit Vietnamese workers, he said, while also opening a new market to U.S. exports.
The president said many critics point to shortcomings of previous trade deals, like the North American Free Trade Agreement that passed in 1994, but he promised this agreement would be different.
"I know a lot of folks are skeptical about trade," he said. "Past trade deals didn't always live up to the hype. Labor and environmental protections weren't always strong enough...We've got to learn the right lessons from that. The lesson is not that we pull up a drawbridge and build a moat around ourselves."
He also suggested TPP would give America a leg up over competitors like China, which is trying to exert its own influence over global trade practices.
"If we don't write the rules for trade around the world, guess what? China will," he said. "And they'll write those rules in a way that gives Chinese workers and Chinese businesses the upper hand and locks American made goods out. That's the choice we face."
The president took aim at allegations that TPP is being negotiated in secret, away from the prying eyes of the press and the American people.
"This is not true," he said. "Any agreement that we finalize with the other 11 countries will have to be posted online for at least 60 days before I even sign it. Then it's gotta go to Congress, and you know they're not going to do anything fast."
On a more personal note, Mr. Obama took umbrage with those who have questioned his motivations for pushing the trade deal, saying he's run his last election and his only concern at this point is enacting good policy.
"I spent six and a half years trying to rescue this economy," he said. "So I would not risk any of that if I thought the trade deals were going to undermine it. The reason I'm for this is because I think it will enhance it and advance it."
The president is pushing Congress to pass a measure called Trade Promotion Authority, which would fast-track the approval process for TPP by submitting the final trade deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote without any amendment process.
The 11 countries involved in the negotiations, along with the U.S., are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
At the top of his remarks, the president hailed the robust job growth seen in the April labor report released Friday. "This morning we learned that our economy created 223k new jobs last month. The unemployment rate ticked down again to 5.4 percent, which is the lowest it's been in almost seven years," he said, suggesting an expansion of free trade would provide an additional boost for an economy that's already on the upswing.
"I view smart trade agreements as a vital piece of middle class economics, not a contradiction to middle class economics," he said. "It's part and parcel of it."