Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, delivering a big blow to President Barack Obama’s efforts to sell the Pacific-Rim trade deal to Congress.
“As of today, I am not in favour of what I have learned about it,” Mrs Clinton told PBS television two days after the landmark trade pact was concluded. “I don’t believe it’s going to meet the high bar I have set.”
Her position marks a big setback for Mr Obama whose team has spent five years negotiating with Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim nations that account for 40 per cent of the world economy. Mr Obama wants to get TPP through Congress before he leaves office in January 2017, but Mrs Clinton’s move is an example of how presidential politics will complicate those efforts.
As secretary of state during the first Obama administration, she called TPP a “gold standard” trade agreement. But that was before she launched her presidential campaign, which faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist and outspoken opponent of TPP.
A statement from Mr Sanders emphasised his longstanding opposition to the TPP and other trade deals, saying: “I am glad that Secretary Clinton has now come on board.”
Martin O’Malley, the former Baltimore mayor also running for president, accused Mrs Clinton of making a U-turn ahead of the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday. “Wow! That’s a reversal!” he said.
Mrs Clinton’s move to oppose TPP — the economic backbone of the strategic “pivot” to Asia that Mrs Clinton and the Obama national security team were pushing — was criticised as a calculated effort to appeal to her party’s progressive base, which is worried about the impact of trade deals on jobs and wages.
“Forget economics and jobs for a moment. Clinton has just stomped all over most of the national security establishment which came out strongly for TPP as a strategic hedge against China in the Asia Pacific,” said Steve Clemons, a politics and national security expert at The Atlantic. “They defined this trade deal as strategically vital for the US — and now the former secretary of state has defected from this strategic crowd largely because of pressure on her from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and very possibly the Scranton, Pennsylvania-born, labour-hugging Joe Biden.”
The Obama administration argues that TPP is the “most progressive” trade deal ever negotiated by the US, pointing to its strict labour and environmental chapters. But the president has faced fierce opposition from environmental groups and labour unions and managed to secure the support of only a few dozen Democrats in his bid for “fast-track” trade authority earlier this year.
A White House official said that Mrs Clinton had informed Mr Obama before she announced her decision in an interview in Iowa. While her opposition will hurt Mr Obama’s efforts to convince additional Democrats to back TPP, his more immediate problem is the negative reaction from senior Republicans.
Orrin Hatch, the powerful chairman of the Senate finance committee and ally of the president in part of his push for TPP, also expressed reservations. He said he was concerned about what the drugs industry sees as weak intellectual property protections for next-generation drugs known as “biologics” and the carving out of the tobacco industry from an investor dispute mechanism.
“The United States only has one chance to negotiate, consider and implement the TPP. We have to get it right,” said Mr Hatch.
Speaking in Iowa, Mrs Clinton said she was concerned that TPP did not tackle currency manipulation and that “pharmaceutical companies may have gotten more benefits and patients fewer”. Her move comes one week after she unveiled a proposal to cut the prohibitive cost of medicines in the US.
It was unclear whether her use of the phrase “as of now” in referring to her opposition signalled that she might change her mind in the future.
“Hillary Clinton’s use of an ‘as of now’ hinge would be total political disaster for her to shift from her previous pro-TPP position to now anti and then possibly back to pro again,” said Mr Clemons.