President Obama sought to downplay divisions within Washington over his authority to negotiate trade deals and reassure his fellow North American leaders that the United States was committed to negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
During a press conference Wednesday night in Mexico, Obama said it was not accurate to claim Democrats opposed the Pacific trade deal, despite both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently voicing objection to legislation that would grant the president fast-track authority to negotiate the agreement.
“There are elements in my party that oppose this trade deal,” Obama said. “There are elements of my party that opposed the South Korea free trade agreement, the Colombia free trade agreement and the Panama free trade agreement, all of which we passed with Democratic votes.”
The president said he told Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto that if negotiations bore “a good agreement” that the Obama Administration would “get this passed.”
“I've said this to some of my own constituents who are opposed to trade: Those who are concerned about losing jobs or outsourcing need to understand some of the old agreements put us at a disadvantage,” Obama said.
Wednesday’s meeting of the North American leaders coincided with the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement. All three leaders said the trade pact helped boost their countries’ economies and underscored why a broader Pacific deal was necessary.
Peña Nieto said the countries would “overcome disagreements and eventual roadblocks” presented by the negotiations and that the deal was in the interest of the three countries.
“After 20 years of the free-trade agreement, our trade has been able to thrive,” Peña Nieto said. “We have more commercial exchanges. We have more investment in the region. And today, we have integrated added-value chains between our three countries. That means that we are adding value to products that are offered in this great market.”
Separate from the efforts on trade, the leaders announced a series of agreements designed to improve commerce and travel on the North American continent.
“We've agreed to keep working to make it easier for our businesspeople and tourists to trade and travel, and we're going to step up our efforts to streamline and eliminate regulations or the red tape that can sometimes stifle trade and job creation,” Obama said.
Earlier Wednesday, Obama signed an executive order mandating the completion of an electronic trade portal for small businesses to submit import and export information faster.
The U.S., Mexico, and Canada plan to create a trusted traveler program, which allows vetted individuals to more easily travel across shared borders. The countries also agreed to better synchronize trade data to ease importing and exporting between nations, and create a joint transportation plan that focuses on how to improve freight movement.
Additionally, the leaders are creating a research council to foster joint development opportunities, increasing educational exchanges, and improving coordination on security questions. The leaders also agreed to create a task force designed to protect the monarch butterfly.
“This is a landmark species in North America,” Peña Nieto said.
But despite the optimistic tone struck by the world leaders, the joint meeting in Peña Nieto’s hometown still appeared defined by the complicated task of reconciling mutual goals and what Obama, earlier in the day, referred to as the “parochial interests” of domestic politics.
In a tacit acknowledgment of his legislative frustration, Obama stressed that immigration reform “remains one of my highest priorities.” On the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, Obama refused to provide Harper with a more concrete timeline for approval of the project. And Peña Nieto, for his part, looked to deflect questions about the bloody drug trade plaguing Mexico.
Still, Obama sought to depict the so-called “three amigos” meeting as a successful collaborative effort.
“America's success, Mexico's success, Canadian success are all bound together,” Obama said.