Obama 'more optimistic' about Pacific trade deal

President Obama said Thursday he believes the odds for striking a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement are "significantly higher than 50-50" in a meeting Thursday with his export council.

Obama told the gathering of top business leaders that he was "much more optimistic about us being able to close out an agreement with our top partners than I was last year," when he said a deal was "still up for grabs."


Obama said that he believed he and business leaders could also "make a strong case" to Congress to approve the treaty.

"Despite the fact we had an election I wasn't that happy with, the dynamics really don't change in terms of the number of votes in the House and the Senate that are there to be gotten for a good trade deal, but we have to make the case," Obama said.

Prominent Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), have broken with Obama and said they do not support the deal over concerns it could lead to job losses in the U.S.

But Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is line to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said moving legislation to enable Obama to negotiate the treaty is a top priority.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday he hoped Obama "will find a way to bring his party on board with trade legislation that would give the administration the tools it needs to expand opportunities for American workers through increased exports.”

The president acknowledged there would be "pushback" domestically and said advocates of the trade deal should acknowledge "some consequences" of prior trade agreements such as jobs moving to other countries.

"The pushback that we're going to get domestically derives from a couple of sources," Obama said. "One is from not just labor, not just organized labor, but a public perception generally that trade has resulted in an erosion of our manufacturing base and companies moved overseas in search of lower waged labor."

But, Obama argued, "that horse is out of the barn," and that advocates of trade deals should note that they open access to new markets and "force these other countries to increase their labor standards and environmental standards."

At the same time, Obama acknowledged there were still some significant stumbling blocks in the regional free-trade agreement.

He said one "big bugaboo" was a concern that tobacco companies could use the deal to sue poorer countries in a bid to prevent anti-smoking legislation, or conversely, that anti-smoking laws could be unfairly applied to shake down American tobacco manufacturers.

The president said he was optimistic negotiators could find a way that tobacco companies could abide by local safety rules by ensuring the laws "are not being discriminatorily applied."

Obama asked the assembled business leaders to help him make the case for the trade agreement.

"We're going to have to make the sale, and it's going to be very important for business to be out there and champion this and show this is good for your business, your suppliers, your workers," he said.

Obama also asked the business leaders to help his administration keep Republicans in the next Congress from imposing new sanctions on Russia beyond the steps Europe is willing to take.

The president said such a move would be "counterproductive" and could lead to cracks in the alliance against Russia over its incursions into Ukraine.

"Putin does not have good cards and actually has not played them as well as sometimes the Western press gives him credit for," Obama said, describing an "improvisational quality" to the Russian leader's actions.

Obama said that if the U.S. demonstrated "strategic patience" it would become evident to Putin that the sanctions were "profoundly damaging" to his economy.