WE’VE FAULTED President Obama for his less-than-full-throated support of free-trade agreements that enjoy the nominal backing of his administration. There was no such cause for complaint about his State of the Union address Tuesday night, however, in which he called on “both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe.” In practical terms, that means Mr. Obama believes that his negotiators are close to cementing market-opening pacts with 11 Pacific Rim nations — most importantly, Japan — and with the European Union and that passing a bill that authorizes an up-or-down congressional vote on the final agreements will strengthen his hand at the bargaining table.
What Mr. Obama couldn’t say openly is that his party’s loss of the Senate, and the resulting exit of trade skeptic Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as majority leader, greatly increased the chances that he will follow up his appeal for this legislation, unlike a milder one he offered in last year’s address — and that he will actually be heeded. Given the stakes, that omission was a permissible one.
More interesting was the argument that Mr. Obama did deploy in favor of the trade deals: Anticipating the usual case against free trade, he recast the proposed pacts as measures to support U.S. jobs at the expense of China. “Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages,” he proclaimed. “But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage.”
The president’s first point was both accurate and a welcome rebuttal to the zero-sum thinking that too often pervades the arguments of trade opponents. The second might have seemed a bit obscure — even conspiratorial. Did the president actually mean to suggest that Beijing’s bureaucrats are plotting to impose a whole new set of laws and regulations on East Asia’s economy?
Not really: He was instead alluding to the wider strategic rationale for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would link North and South America, Australia and New Zealand more closely, and on more equitable terms, with Japan and other key Asian nations. By and large, these Asian countries seek to maintain a strong U.S. presence in their region as a counterweight to Chinese influence. An agreement that would organize trade in the Pacific Rim according to U.S. free-trade principles rather than China’s mercantilist goals is therefore a vital interest for them — and for the United States.
Both economically and geopolitically, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would perpetuate the United States’ stabilizing role in Asia; it is one of the Obama administration’s brightest ideas. All that’s left now is for both the president and Republican leaders in Congress to keep their promises and make it happen.