We are witnessing a rare (these days) internecine fight in the Democratic Party over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a treaty that would liberalize trade relations between the United States and 11 other Pacific-rim countries. In favor of the TPP is President Obama, who — like his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton — has largely pursued a free-trade agenda during his administration. He’s joined by most Republicans in Congress. Opposed is a vocal coalition of labor and environmental groups, traditionally Democratic allies who have found champions for their cause among some of the party’s more left-leaning elected officials. These include Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and — most prominently — Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Rather than shrink from a fight with his party’s liberal wing, Obama is embracing it. On Friday, he gave a speech at Nike’s headquarters in Portland, Ore., in which he explicitly took his fellow Democrats to task for opposing the deal. He followed that up with harsh words for Warren in an interview with Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai. In this era of polarized American politics, such boldness is unusual in a president: as shown in research by myself and other political scientists, party leaders are typically loath to ignore their base on high-profile issues that matter to party activists.
But the TPP is a controversy on which Obama may be unusually free to ignore the demands of his core supporters. That’s because these days most Democrats — and, as it turns out, most Americans — have remarkably vague views on the question of free trade. This is shown by a cleverly worded question on the American National Election Study survey conducted just after the 2012 presidential election. Respondents were presented with the standard arguments for and against limiting foreign imports to the United States: “Some people have suggested placing new limits on foreign imports in order to protect American jobs. Others say that such limits would raise consumer prices and hurt American exports.” They were then asked if they favored or opposed limits on imports, and the question was appended with an option that we probably see too infrequently in political surveys: “…or haven’t you thought much about this?”
Americans venturing an opinion were staunchly anti-free trade, with those favoring import limits outnumbering those opposed by about 2 to 1. But adding “haven’t thought much” as a possible response had huge implications for expressed public opinion: it was the most preferred option overall (at 47 percent), and the plurality choice among every partisan group except strong Republicans. The lack of conviction is all the more noteworthy given that Americans were asked this survey question just after a presidential campaign centering on jobs and the economy that was fought in manufacturing-heavy battleground states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
So what do Americans think about free trade? The best answer to this question is probably “not much.” As he pursues fast-track authority for the TPP, expect to hear that President Obama is ignoring the opinion of his liberal base. But the truth is that on this issue, there’s simply not much opinion to ignore.