WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama brushed off opposition from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to a free-trade agreement with Asia on Tuesday, vowing to try to force the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress before either of them can take office.
Increasingly, Obama has been on his own as election-year resistance to the pact hardens around him. Though Democratic leaders in Congress and both parties' presidential nominees say it's a bad deal that shouldn't move forward, Obama showed no signs of entertaining their concerns.
"Right now, I'm president, and I'm for it," Obama said. "And I think I've got the better argument."
Obama's odds of success appear exceedingly slim.
Even Republicans who typically support trade deals have downplayed chances for the deal, known as TPP, to be ratified by Congress this year. That includes many Republicans who partnered with the Democratic president last year to pass legislation giving him the negotiating authority he said he needed to strike the deal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said recently that prospects this year are "pretty slim," while House Speaker Paul Ryan has accused Obama of messing up the negotiations. Ryan's spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said Tuesday that the deal still has problems, "and there can be no movement before these concerns are addressed."
Even Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, Senate Democrats' leader-in-waiting and a frequent Obama ally, told The Associated Press last week that the days of thinking free trade could pass Congress without major changes was over.
In a clear reference to Clinton, the president's preferred successor, Obama said he respects those who warn the deal undercuts U.S. workers and their wages. Yet he pointedly asserted that none of the deal's opponents had effectively argued that TPP would be worse for labor and the environment than no deal at all.
"I've got some very close friends, people I admire a lot, but who I just disagree with," Obama said. "And that's OK."
Clinton and her running mate, Virginia Sen Tim Kaine, both once supported the deal but reversed course as White House candidates. The White House is banking on Clinton reversing herself once again if elected and supporting the deal, perhaps by pointing to fixes she can say have addressed her concerns. But after a close Clinton ally floated that possibility last week, her campaign chairman quashed it, insisting Clinton would remain opposed — "period, full stop."
"We have to be clear that we don't have the votes right now," said Tami Overby, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business group that strongly supports TPP. "The reason is there are still some issues that are being very actively worked on both by the administration, Congress and the stakeholders."
Yet Obama and the leaders of other TPP countries have made clear that re-opening negotiations to try to alter the terms would likely fell the whole deal, given how complicated it was to reach agreement in the first place. That means fixes would have to come via side deals or less formal arrangements that might not have the same force as a ratified act of Congress.
Speaking at a news conference with the prime minister of Singapore — one of 12 countries in TPP — Obama confirmed what most in Washington had long suspected: that he's given up on getting the deal passed during the harried campaign season but is holding out hope for a vote in the lame-duck period between Election Day and the next president's inauguration.
"Hopefully, after the election is over and the dust settled, there will be more attention to the actual facts behind the deal and it won't just be a political symbol or a political football," Obama said.
But Republicans control both chambers of Congress for the remainder of Obama's term, so they generally decide what gets a vote and what doesn't. Making Obama's pitch to congressional leaders even harder, after Election Day the nation will have just elected a new president opposed to the deal, assuming Clinton or Trump win.
"Hope springs eternal, but if you take Sen. McConnell at his word and Clinton's team at their word, it's difficult to imagine anything happening," said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Matthew Pennington contributed to this report.