President Obama gave his sixth State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 20, and one of the major focuses of the speech was the importance of concluding trade agreements. The President used the occasion to call on Congress to pass legislation to grant him trade promotion authority (TPA), which requires Congress to provide an up or down vote (without amendments) on trade deals the Administration has negotiated.
President Obama noted that passage of TPA was necessary to clear the path for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that the United States is currently negotiating with 11 other countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. He pressed for strong new trade deals in Asia and Europe that "aren't just free, but fair."
A bipartisan TPA bill was introduced in the previous Congress but failed to gain enough traction for passage in either the House or Senate. A bill has yet to be introduced in the 114th Congress, but there is one in the works under the leadership of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR), and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).
In his speech to the nation, the President stressed the importance of selling more American products overseas. He tried to make the case that providing him with TPA will level the playing field and protect American workers, and he cited American companies' plans to bring jobs back from overseas as a reason to pass TPA. "More than half of manufacturing executives have said they're actively looking to bring jobs back from China. So let's give them one more reason to get it done."
At the same time, President Obama admitted that past trade deals haven't been all they were cracked up to be – an admission that Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) called the "understatement of the year." Several members of the President's own party, who view TPA as a procedure designed to limit public scrutiny of trade deals, held a press conference to push back against the President's ambitions on trade.
In his State of the Union address last year, the President focused on his initiative to create manufacturing hubs and only briefly discussed the need for TPA. The President's shift in focus in this State of the Union signals that the Administration intends to make a stronger push this year to get the deals done. A week after the speech, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman was echoing the President's message on trade in congressional hearings in both the House and Senate.