Free trade can keep Obama from being a lame duck. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Free trade can keep Obama from being a lame duck. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

It was discouraging to hear Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid say this week that the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to support President Barack Obama’s bid for trade promotion authority. There are few policy changes that could be better for job creation and economic growth, both in the short and long term, than an aggressive effort to open markets abroad. And it was one of the very few policy prescriptions unveiled in Obama’s speech that actually has bipartisan support.

Legislation to restore trade promotion authority, which has been supported by both Republican and Democratic presidents, would require Congress to take an up-or-down vote on any trade deal negotiated by the president. That means no amendments, no filibusters and no exceedingly long debates. The last TPA expired back in 2007; its renewal is crucial to advancing a free-trade agenda. A bipartisan bill currently pending before the Congress, the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, would restore TPA and give the president an important tool to open markets abroad.

Reid's comments also put at risk a comprehensive trade deal between 12 pacific nations (including Japan, New Zealand, Chile and Vietnam) known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a pact with Europe known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Negotiations over the former were supposed to have been completed by the end of last year but have now stalled. And while negotiations on the latter are supposed to be complete by the end of 2014, don't hold your breath.

Democrats who oppose TPA and the pending free trade measures believe that American workers will be hurt by the increased competition from abroad -- where labor standards may be lower and therefore the cost of producing goods lower as well. They’ve also expressed concern about the somewhat secretive way in which negotiations over the TPP, in particular, have been conducted.

Those concerns are misguided and pessimistic. American workers and goods can win if we can compete on fair terms, and free trade will give a much needed boost to our economy and U.S. manufacturers, in particular.

Obama is already being called a lame-duck president, so the fight for free trade may be his last, best opportunity to show that he has some fight left in him. That will require him to buck the popular consensus within his own party -- in fact, more than 150 House Democrats recently signed a letter to Obama opposing TPA. (To be fair, there is bipartisan opposition to TPA; some protectionist Republicans don't like it either.)

I take the White House at its word when it says free trade is an important policy priority. Obama should follow through on the commitment he made in his State of the Union address on Tuesday and first work with free traders in Congress on both sides of the aisle to pass legislation restoring TPA. Then he should set out to quickly complete negotiations over the two pending trade deals.

It may be the only bipartisan victory Obama can claim during his time as president, but it would be an important one for the U.S.'s workers and economy.

(Lanhee Chen is a Bloomberg View columnist, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and an advisor to several Republican campaigns, including that of California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari. He was the policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.)

To contact the writer of this article: Lanhee Chen at lchen301@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.