Washington (CNN)Everything President Barack Obama said in Tuesday night's State of the Union pleased the left -- except his pitch for free trade.
Left: Obama was great, except on trade
Democratic lawmakers, labor unions and environmental groups are quickly mounting a campaign to deny Obama's request for authority to fast-track new deals with Pacific Rim countries and the European Union through Congress without amendments.
It's a power that's absolutely crucial to Obama's ability to get those deals done: Foreign leaders won't take the political risk of signing anything if they fear they'll have to renegotiate it bit-by-bit once the deal reaches Capitol Hill.
But liberals say they're tired of being shut out of the negotiations, and they don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past -- like the Bill Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement, which Democrats contend has drained away manufacturing jobs.
"We are fighting for the future of middle class families. That is what this debate is all about," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, said Wednesday, echoing the economic theme that underpinned Obama's speech.
Obama's request for fast-track authority comes as U.S. trade negotiators try to hammer out a final agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive 12-country pact that would help the United States counter China's economic rise in the Asia-Pacific.
Like previous trade deals, it would ax tariffs both in the United States and overseas. But it would also cover new e-commerce issues, extend U.S. pharmaceutical drug-makers' patents in some countries and more -- areas where Obama said the United States risks falling behind without the pact. It would also impose new requirements on participating countries to protect the environment and uphold labor rights. And it would give American companies new access to the historically closed-off but potentially lucrative market of Japan.
"We should write those rules. We should level the playing field," Obama said Tuesday night. "That's why I'm asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren't just free, but fair."
But he hasn't sold liberals, who fear Obama's promises of a new type of trade agreement will be hollow, leaving them with a "NAFTA on steroids."
The Democratic resistance -- if successful -- would undercut one of the only items Obama included in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night that has close to enough votes to clear Congress and become law.
Tea partiers have put up some opposition to Obama's trade agenda, saying they're leery to help him with anything at all. But most of the criticism has come from Obama's own party.
Since November's elections, Republican leaders like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have cited trade as one area where they could cooperate with Obama.
They even credited him for bringing it up during his speech.
McConnell said Obama "began what I hope will be a sustained effort to move his own party forward -- to encourage them to work with us to help create more jobs by breaking down foreign trade barriers and allowing America to sell more of what it makes and grows."
But it's not clear that Democratic resistance is easing. Obama acknowledged the problem during his speech.
"Look, I'm the first one to admit that past trade deals haven't always lived up to the hype, and that's why we've gone after countries that break the rules at our expense," Obama said, before pivoting to his case for free trade.
"But 95% of the world's customers live outside our borders, and we can't close ourselves off from those opportunities," he said. "More than half of manufacturing executives have said they're actively looking at bringing jobs back from China. Let's give them one more reason to get it done."
The left's response to Obama's admission about past deals falling short of the hype: No kidding.
"When the President said last night that trade deals had not lived up to the hype, that may have been the understatement of the century," Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York said at a Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday.
Several liberal lawmakers said they thought they had enough Democrats to join with a few conservatives to defeat a fast-track authority bill.
"I believe we have the votes and that we're going to win this issue," DeLauro said.
"We will do what we can in the Senate to defeat this unfortunate proposal," independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucuses with the Democrats, said.
Also hammering Obama's free trade push were a long list of traditionally liberal interests -- including the Sierra Club, the Communications Workers of America and the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
"Trade should be done right -- not just fast -- to protect our families and neighbors from pollution and climate disruption. Fast tracking flawed trade pacts is a deal-breaker," said
Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director, in a letter the group sent to members of Congress on Wednesday.
Obama's first real shot at winning fast-track authority came a year ago, when then-Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus joined his ranking Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and then-House and Means Chairman Dave Camp to introduce a bill that handed the White House everything it wanted.
Republican leaders heralded that proposal, but it went nowhere. Camp announced his retirement. Baucus departed to become the U.S. Ambassador to China. And his replacement, Sen. Ron Wyden, wouldn't move their bill forward.
Hatch, now the finance committee's chairman, is trying to jump-start the process with a hearing he's scheduled for Jan. 27 featuring U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the Obama administration's lead negotiator.
Even if Obama gets the fast-track authority -- or "trade promotion authority" -- legislation that he wants, it doesn't mean deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be in place before he leaves office.
Japan's own political troubles have delayed progress in the negotiations for months, and even once a final agreement is reached, the countries involved would have to go through a complicated process of evaluating the final details and translating it into the languages of each of the countries involved in the talks.
Then, each country would have to ratify it -- and many of the benefits might be phased in over a long-range period.
As a result, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is likely to become a hot topic in the 2016 presidential race, where the Democratic candidate could be Hillary Clinton, who was Obama's secretary of state during parts of the negotiations.