The Consumer Electronics Show may be the country's biggest yearly confab for wacky and futuristic gadgets, but for White House trade officials, it's something else: A political opportunity.
President Obama dispatched his top trade negotiator to Las Vegas on Thursday to talk up the benefits of a major multilateral deal on international business before a number of tech companies, in hopes that the companies will pressure their representatives in Washington to vote for the trade agreement when the time comes.
The trade deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. It eliminates thousands of foreign tariffs on U.S. exports, potentially making it easier for American companies to sell their goods abroad.
At the same time, it has attracted stiff opposition from labor organizations and even some presidential candidates, some of whom worry the TPP will hurt working-class wages and others who say the deal doesn't help the United States enough. That's led to questions about whether President Obama has enough support in Congress to ratify the deal.
Ambassador Michael Froman, Obama's senior-most trade adviser, went to CES this week to sell the deal to tech companies. In meetings with businesses such as Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, Froman said the TPP would help the private sector by easing customs procedures and rolling back foreign-imposed requirements.
Ultimately, it's a roundabout play that the Obama administration hopes will pay off in Congress.
"We are actively involved — when I say we, I mean a whole-of-White House effort, the whole cabinet has been mobilized to highlight the benefits of the TPP, community by community, sector by sector," said Froman, "and this is just one part of that broader campaign.
"Our ability to highlight these [benefits] for companies that we see great opportunity in — we hope, we expect, will have positive implications for members of Congress who are considering their position on TPP."