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World

Obama Touts Benefits Of Pacific Trade Deal With Singapore's Prime Minister

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Time is running out for a big Asia-Pacific trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have come out against it, so President Obama is hustling to push the deal through Congress before he leaves office. Obama spoke about the agreement at the White House today after meeting the prime minister of Singapore. It's one of a dozen countries that have already signed on to the deal. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The proposed Asia-Pacific trade deal has become a bipartisan punching bag, attacked by presidential candidates from both major parties. But Obama insists he's not giving up on the deal. He's convinced it will help to boost U.S. jobs and exports while cementing America's strategic role as a major player in the Pacific.

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BARACK OBAMA: I'm really confident I can make the case that this is good for American workers and the American people.

HORSLEY: It's going to be up to Obama to make that case, and quickly. Unless he's able to win ratification this fall, the agreement could be abandoned by the next president. To Donald Trump, the agreement's just the latest in a series of unfortunate trade deals that he argues put American workers at a disadvantage.

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DONALD TRUMP: Here's the problem - we have stupid people doing our negotiating.

HORSLEY: Hillary Clinton is somewhat less critical, having initially supported the agreement as secretary of state. But during her hard-fought primary battle with Bernie Sanders she, too, came out against the deal. Campaign Chairman John Podesta insists that's not just a convenient temporary position to help get Clinton through the fall.

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JOHN PODESTA: I can be definitive. She is against it before the election and after the election.

HORSLEY: Asked about that opposition from his would-be successors at the White House today, Obama was undaunted.

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OBAMA: Well, right now, I'm president, and I'm for it.

HORSLEY: Obama says Americans are understandably anxious about the way globalization and automation have affected the economy. But, he insists, trying to pull up a drawbridge is not the right approach. Political scientist Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania says it's not just people's economic situation that shapes their attitude towards trade. Often they're influenced by more symbolic beliefs about the U.S. place in the world.

DIANA MUTZ: So it's not that they're so much being hurt by trade as it is that they are pulling inward, hunkering down and wanting to go back to a nostalgic version of how things used to be.

HORSLEY: Obama argues going back is not an option. He says the choice is between shaping the forces of globalization in a way that protects workers and the environment or not. Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, says approving the trade deal would send a clear signal that the U.S. will continue to be a leader in Asia. Lee warns America's credibility in the region will suffer if the U.S. walks away leaving so many jilted partners.

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LEE HSIEN LOONG: And if at the end, waiting at the altar the bride doesn't arrive, I think there are people who are going to be very hurt not just emotionally, but really damaged for a long time to come.

HORSLEY: The trade deal has already survived a number of near-death experiences both at the bargaining table and in Congress, where lawmakers narrowly voted last summer to grant the president fast-track negotiating authority on the second try. Obama nodded to that difficult history today as he reaffirmed his support for the deal.

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OBAMA: Nothing in life is certain. But we've got a pretty good track record of getting stuff done when I think it's important.

HORSLEY: Obama says he's hoping to win congressional approval for the trade deal once the election is over and the dust settles. Given what we've heard about trade during the presidential campaign that could make for a dusty and unsettled lame duck session. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.