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Obama Could Get More Cheers From Republicans On Trade


It's customary during a State of the Union speech to see lawmakers from the president's own party stand and cheer loudly while members of the opposition sit in stony silence. Tonight though, we could see a mirror image of that during one part of the president's speech. When President Obama talks about free trade deals he's trying to strike, he's likely to get a much warmer reception from Republicans than from his fellow Democrats. NPR's Scott Horsley explains.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Both President Obama and Republican Congressional leaders have identified trade negotiations as one of the few areas where they think they can find common ground. The new Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell talked about that after meeting with Obama at the White House last week.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: We think trade agreements are good for America, create jobs and opportunity for our people.

HORSLEY: McConnell thinks most Republicans are willing to grant the president fast-track authority to finalize two big trade deals, setting the stage for a simple up or down vote in Congress. The administration has been promoting those deals as a way to boost American exports and improve living standards here at home. But in meeting with a group of CEOs last month, Obama acknowledged he's got an uphill job in selling the deals to a skeptical audience, including many of his fellow Democrats who are worried about overseas competition.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have to be able to talk directly to the public about why trade is good for America, good for American businesses and good for American workers. And we have to dispel some of the myths.

HORSLEY: Obama concedes competition from low-cost trading partners has cost some jobs in the U.S., but he insists efforts to beat back new trade deals are counterproductive. He argues the proposed agreements would require countries like Malaysia and Vietnam to raise that their labor and environmental standards, putting competitors in this country on a stronger footing.


OBAMA: Part of the argument that I'm making to Democrats is, don't fight the last war.

LORI WALLACH: If the president doesn't want us to fight the last trade debate then he needs to stop sending us the last trade agreement.

HORSLEY: That's Lori Wallach, who monitors trade policy for the nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen. She argues that the president who once campaigned on a platform of changing the North American Free Trade Agreement is now drafting new trade deals with many of the same characteristics.

WALLACH: When he said he was going to renegotiate NAFTA, we didn't expect him to expand on its worst provisions and then extend that to a dozen more countries.

HORSLEY: Obama's trade agenda has put the president at odds with some of the labor and environmental groups that helped elect him, not to mention many of his fellow Democratic politicians. Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan says he won't vote to give the president fast-track negotiating authority.

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE MARK POCAN: We have seen the jobs go away, the wages go down. And it is time that the public has a say, which means Congress has to have a say, and fast-track takes away our voice.

HORSLEY: While Congressional Democrats may be the biggest stumbling block, Obama notes, Republicans' traditional faith in free trade agreements has also been shaken by tough economic times. That points to a bigger challenge facing political leaders in both parties as they try to sell their policies to anxious and uncertain middle class.


OBAMA: We're not going to get trade done, we're not going to get infrastructure done, we're not going to get anything done in this town until we're able to describe to the average American worker how, at some level, this is improving their wages, it's giving them the ability to save for retirement, it's improving their financial security.

HORSLEY: That theme of helping the average American worker will run throughout the president's speech tonight, even if Obama's own party is skeptical of some of his policy prescriptions.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.