While it is debatable whether Americans largely approve of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – the massive free trade agreement comprising 11 other countries -- it is undeniable that the presidential candidates are responding to Americans' concerns about economic insecurity in staking out their positions on the deal.
In June 2015, Congress granted the president "fast track" authority, which allows the president to negotiate the agreement with other countries and put it before Congress for a straight "yes" or "no" vote. Lasting six years, this authority gives President Obama – and his successors – more flexibility, as Congress cannot propose amendments that would complicate and prolong negotiations with other member countries.
Securing fast track authority was a challenge for the president. Presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as many congressional Democrats, were reluctant to facilitate passage of the TPP, believing that the free trade agreement would further erode American jobs and wages.
Yet since the text of the TPP was first released publicly in November 2015, Congress has not moved to put it to a vote. Citing a lack of political will, congressional leaders indicate that the TPP will likely not be voted on in the near future, either before the November election or during the lame duck period ending in January 2017.
As a result, passage of the TPP might have to occur during the administration of the next president, but this insight invites the questions, "What are the candidates' positions on the TPP?" and "Would they kill any approval of the deal?"
GOP nominee Donald Trump has consistently opposed the TPP. In April 2015, he criticized the deal for not addressing Japan's currency manipulation, and the following month, he called it a "disaster" and claimed it would lead to the offshoring of domestic jobs.
In a speech on June 28, 2016, shortly before receiving his party's nomination, Trump was unambiguous in his denunciation of the deal, saying there is "no way to fix the TPP." He added that the U.S. should negotiate more bilateral, country-to-country trade agreements rather than "enter into another massive international agreement that ties us up and binds us down."
Trump has criticized Clinton on her history with the TPP, noting that she promoted it as secretary of state, yet later denounced it while engaged in her primary fight with Bernie Sanders. Trump has also seized on the comments of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a long-time friend of the Clintons, who stated during the Democratic convention that Clinton might later approve of the agreement if she is elected.
Gene Sperling, an adviser to Hillary Clinton, affirmed after McAuliffe's statement that Clinton is against the TPP and would not support it as president. "Hillary Clinton is against the TPP now," he said. "She’s against it in the lame duck. She’s against it when she gets inaugurated."
Though Clinton did indeed support the TPP as secretary of state – calling it "the gold standard" in 2012, she claims she withheld final judgment on the deal until she read the completed text, and in October 2015, Clinton said she opposed the TPP.
In May 2016, Clinton cited a number of objections to the agreement, including insufficient protections for labor, human rights, the environment, health, and public safety, as well as the need to address currency manipulation. Clinton said she opposes the TPP "before and after the election" and that to support any free trade deal, it would have to meet her "three-point test" of creating U.S. jobs, raising wages, and promoting national security.
Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein has been a consistent critic of the TPP. She opposed congressional approval of fast track authority, calling it a "massive betrayal of democracy" – citing Congress' inability to propose amendments to the agreement.
In addition to concerns that the TPP would result in a net decrease in American jobs and wages, Stein has also criticized an aspect of the agreement that allows foreign companies to challenge American laws and regulations, calling the mechanism "an attack on our basic national sovereignty."
Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson has been less consistent regarding the TPP.
Though in principle a proponent of free trade, Johnson has been skeptical toward the TPP. In early June 2016, he said that it was "laden with crony capitalism.," but more recently, Johnson has expressed tepid support for the deal.. “Is it a perfect document? Probably not. But based on my understanding of the document, I would be supporting it in a perfect world there wouldn’t be a document like that, there would just be free trade.”
“It is my understanding that the TPP does advance free trade,” he said
Given the unlikelihood that Congress would vote on the TPP during the lame duck period, it appears that it would be up to the next president to sign off on the deal if it lands on his or her desk. However, of the four major presidential candidates, it appears that only one, Johnson, would consider approving it.
It is for these reasons that President Obama is trying to assure TPP member nations that Congress will approve the agreement in the two-month period between the end of the summer recess, in early September, and the election, in early November.