President Barack Obama risks getting a hostile reception from some in his own party when he addresses the Democratic Convention on Wednesday night because of his stance on trade.
Skittish party managers are toiling to ensure that when Mr Obama takes the podium in Philadelphia delegates opposed to his signature Pacific trade deal do not try to seize the televised moment to air their grievances with chants or boos. It wasn’t clear ahead of time, if Mr Obama would discuss the treaty directly or opt for safety and leave out all mention of it.
The fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, has divided Democrats as they strive to hold on to the White House. There were wild scenes at the convention on Monday night as delegates, especially those who had backed Bernie Sanders, booed several speakers while waving anti-TPP placards and raised a banner saying, “Economic Justice, Climate Justice, Trade Justice”.
After helping to negotiate the deal, which promises to lower barriers between twelve countries around the Pacific rim to create a near single market of 800 million people, twice the size of the European Union’s, Ms Clinton, under pressure from the party’s left, has now declared herself opposed to it.
Those negotiations are now completed and the treaty awaits ratification by the US and the other members - Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru. If it can be done, it would be central to Mr Obama’s legacy as president.
But few issues in Philadelphia - both in the convention hall and amidst the throngs of protesters who have jammed the city daily - have incited more passion than the TPP. On Wednesday morning, a member of the US Congress from Wisconsin, Ron Kind, who supports free trade, was virtually encircled by furious protestors, one shouting at him directly to his face, as he arrived to deliver a breakfast speech to members of his state’s delegation.
The displays at the convention on Monday, when the floor became a sea of red signs with the initials TPP and a slash across them, came amidst anger that that there is no commitment to ditch the treaty in the official party platform adopted on the eve of their gathering in Philadelphia.
The animosity has been fueled notably by Mr Sanders who has repeatedly tied its provisions to the NAFTA trade deal linking Mexico and Canada to the US. Signed by Ms Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton in 1993, it has been blamed by the liberal wing for sending jobs abroad and helping accelerate the decline of US manufacturing.
The US Congress has already voted to give Mr Obama so-called ‘fast track authority’ to submit the treaty for approval by a straight up and down vote without amendments.. But its fate is now in doubt as a growing contingent of Democrats and also Republicans have begun to waver.
Traditionally supportive of free trade agreements, the Republican Party also now finds itself with a nominee in Donald Trump who has also sought to exploit economic anxiety, especially in the American rust belt, to stir opposition to the TPP, which he has said he would not accept while also vowing to demand a renegotiation of NAFTA.
On Tuesday, Mr Trump questioned Ms Clinton’s commitment to opposing the TPP when one of her closest and oldest allies, Terry McAuliffe, the Governor of Virginia, said in an interview on the fringes of the convention that he expected her to soften her position once she is president and sign the treaty after a few tweaks.
“Once the election’s over, and we sit down on trade, people understand a couple things we want to fix on it but going forward we got to build a global economy,” he said. Asked specifically if she would sign it, he replied: “Yes,” adding, “Listen, she was in support of it. There were specific things in it she wants fixed.”
The Trump campaign wasted no time suggesting his words were proof that Ms Clinton was not to be trusted on the issue. “This should surprise nobody!” tweeted Donald Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
"If Hillary gets in she is lying", Mr Trump told reporters at a press conference in Florida on Wednesday. "TPP will happen, there is no one closer to Clinton than McAuliffe".
While opposing TPP helps Mr Trump bolster support from blue collar whites and gives Ms Clinton a bridge to the left-liberal flank of the party that is generally suspicious of her, there is a disconnect with the country as a whole. An NBC poll earlier this month showed that 55 per cent of the country favours expanding free trade with other nations and that it is good for America.
Even the top tickets of both parties are riven down the middle on the issue. Both Governor Mike Pence of Indiana and US Senator Tim Kaine, respectively the running mates of Mr Trump and Ms Clinton, have been staunch supporters of free trade and of the TPP itself.
The comments from Mr McAuliffe questioning Ms Clinton’s commitment to block it sent party managers into an instant scramble to distance the candidate from them.
“While Governor McAuliffe is a supporter of the TPP, he has no expectation Secretary Clinton would change her position on the legislation and she has never told him anything to that effect,” the Clinton campaign said. It’s manager, John Podesta, underscored the point on Twitter.
“Love Gov. McAuliffe, but he got this one flat wrong,” he tweeted. “Hillary opposes TPP BEFORE and AFTER the election. Period. Full stop.”
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