Obama is turning to an unlikely ally to help him sell a key part of his legacy under intense fire
President Barack Obama turned to an unlikely source of support in his latest efforts to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a landmark free-trade agreement that has been shredded along the campaign trail and has tepid support in Congress.
On Friday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich — once a 2016 Republican presidential hopeful — was in Washington to meet with Obama and other leaders, such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, to discuss the free-trade agreement between the US and 11 other Pacific Rim nations.
Standing alongside Reed and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in a surreal White House press briefing at noon, Kasich laid out why he believes there is "a unique opportunity" to "put country ahead of politics" regarding TPP, which has been lambasted by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and disavowed by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
"We now have a unique opportunity to again put country ahead of politics," he said. "I think many people who are in the Congress of the United States understand what this is all about. They understand the implications of trade."
Kasich outlined why the TPP is not only something that makes sense economically, but something that is necessary for the US geopolitical positioning in Asia, where both China and Russia are looking to delegitimize its influence.
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"Could you imagine if the United States of America, as I told one congressman this morning, if we turned our back on those nations in Asia that are looking to us in a great sense of partnership to give them the courage and strength to stand against a rising China?" Kasich asked.
He continued: "So both from an economic point of view and from a geopolitical point of view, where will we be if we turn this down? And this is what gives us a unique opportunity in this city that I've come to not understand. That these kinds of issues is where politics goes out the window and where the good of America has to be represented and has to be respected."
The Ohio Republican thanked the president for inviting him along with the rest of the group to discuss the passing of the agreement, adding that Obama is "very passionate about the need to do this" and is "willing to work with those who are both for and against it."
"And he's willing to really put his shoulder to the wheel," Kasich said, later adding, "America can't lock the doors and lower the blinds and ignore the rest of the world. We're a force for good. And this TPP will help us not only on the economic side but will also allow us to continue to be a strong world leader for good."
Calling on his former colleagues in the House and Senate, Kasich said members of Congress must take the next few weeks to think about what it would mean to vote against the agreement, and what it would mean for the country if they vote yes — a vote he said will strengthen the country and its alliances around the world.
"To me, that's what's at stake," he said. "And frankly, that's why I'm here today."
Obama recently returned from a second trip to Asia since May. Both times, TPP was a central item. But back at home, Obama's major push for TPP has been blasted along the campaign trail, where it remains a centerpiece issue.
Trump, who has championed a fiercely protectionist platform during his presidential run, said the passing of TPP would lead to "A continuing rape of our country" during a July rally.
"That's what it is, too," he said. "It's a harsh word. It's a rape of our country."
Clinton, who supported the deal while she served as secretary of state, reversed her position on it during the primary season, saying there still needs to be work done on it after both Trump and her top challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, roiled the agreement. During the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month, pro-Sanders supporters waved "No TPP" signs and chanted down various speakers by shouting "No TPP."
The agreement still needs to be ratified by Congress, which some say could happen during the lame-duck session of Congress following the November election.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who's been a staunch supporter of the agreement in the past, recently said it had to be renegotiated while meeting with Wisconsin manufacturing workers in early August.
"I don't think there's a high likelihood (of the TPP's passage) right now because ... we don't have the votes to pass it because people like me have problems with some significant provisions of it that we believe need to get fixed," Ryan said. "But here's the point: we do need trade agreements. I know a lot of people say just get rid of trade agreements, don't do trade agreements, and that's terrible. That's a problem for us."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also expressed support for the deal in the past, but he's recently said the deal might not come up for a vote until the next president takes office.
Although it would be hard to believe based on the campaign rhetoric, a recent poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 60% of Americans stand in favor of the deal, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans.
On Friday, Kasich also ran an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining his support, which led him to express his deeper concerns about the state of politics in the country during the press briefing. He said the reaction to the op-ed was less than warm.
"I get reactions like, 'Well you're a Republican. Why are you supporting something that the president wants?'" he said. "I mean, we cannot get to the point in America that because a Democrat wants something that you happen to agree with, you can't agree with him."
"There's plenty of things I disagree with President Obama on," he continued. "But the idea that I'm a Republican and therefore I can't work with Democrats or you're a Democrat and you can't work with Republicans. How does anybody think that the issues of debt, social security, medicare, healthcare, any of these issues, are going to be resolved when we spend all of our time fighting with one another."
Kasich, a former nine-term congressman from Ohio, said he doesn't "recognize" Washington DC "much anymore."
"Because now it's become so much about politics," he said. "And when politics is the order of the day, and partisanship trumps country, we drift. We drift as a nation. And I'm extremely concerned about what I see. This is a moment for people to reverse that."
He also insisted that Congress ignore the rhetoric of the presidential campaign when it comes to ratifying the trade agreement.
"In a presidential campaign, and we've seen a lot of them and every one is defined as the most important one we've had in our history, but the fact of the matter is that goes on," he said. "But this vote, by the current Congress of the United States, is decided by the current makeup of the United States Senate and the United States House."
"I happen to believe, I don't want to try and project anyone else's thinking, but this is a very serious matter," he continued. "And when I see the presidential campaign going on, it's almost a surreal 21st century presidential election where if you and I drafted a movie script about everything that was happening on both sides with both candidates or even the whole process, they would've thrown us out of their offices out in Hollywood because they would've said this is a fiction that goes beyond any fiction that would be acceptable."
Making note that he's "never been" a strict ideological supporter of free trade, Kasich said the agreement is "a lot different than NAFTA" because it involves China and Russia in a geopolitical sense.
"And we want to pivot to Asia," he said, alluding to the Obama administration's longtime foreign policy agenda. "And we have to do this."
Kasich said that, if the trade agreement is not passed during the lame-duck session, he's "not convinced" it will happen afterward.
"There are people both in the House and the Senate that will play pure politics with our future to take care of themselves," he said. "And let me also suggest to you: When that's what you do, when you leave Washington you didn't accomplish anything other than what? Obstruct? ... At the end of the day you have to accomplish something."
John Weaver, the chief strategist for Kasich's presidential campaign, told Business Insider that Friday was "just the beginning" of the governor's involvement in helping get the deal passed.
"I think we'll work hard to try and pass it," he said. "The strategy and the tactics, I don't know if they've been developed yet. And, let's be honest, the subject is hard to punch through in the next six weeks."
"It's going to be hard," he said of getting the agreement passed. "But I don't think it's going to be impossible by any stretch."
Weaver said it will be absolutely necessary for Obama to use a large amount of his political capital to get the deal through. If not, "it's not going to pass."
"We have a carnival barker as a nominee on our side, and Secretary Clinton has been pushed, unfortunately, she allowed herself to be pushed by Bernie Sanders on the other," Weaver said. "If the president will actually commit to working hard for this, because it's not going to pass if he's not willing to use political capital and he now has a pretty high favorable rating as he's getting ready to end his term, if he's willing to use some of that political capital, we're willing to work with him to get this done."
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