By John Kell
April 29, 2015

It’s profoundly ironic that we are counting on Prime Minister Abe of Japan to convince the U.S. Congress of the virtues of free trade when he makes his historic speech to a joint session today — the first ever by a Japanese leader. A generation ago, Japan was the problem when it came to trade. Today, the problem lies within.Senate Majority Leader McConnell said yesterday that trade deals will be “Congress’s biggest accomplishments before the 2016 election.” That statement requires some unpacking. First, it’s a low bar – what else has this Congress done? But second, the trade deal isn’t done. Trade Representative Michael Froman may be the hardest working and most optimistic man in Washington, and if he wins this, the President should give him a vacation home in Hawaii. But at the moment, the votes aren’t there. The left wing of the Democratic party is firmly against trade deals; the right wing of the Republican party doesn’t want to give Obama a win; and these days, the wings rule. That leaves the President, and the business community, stranded in the middle.Even among the U.S. public – more reasonable than its representatives in Washington – support for trade remains weak. The percentage of Americans who believe growing trade and business ties with other countries are a good thing fell from 78% in 2002 to 53% after the recession, and had only recovered to 68% last year, according to my former colleagues at Pew Research. Meanwhile, a full 50% believe trade destroys jobs. It’s telling – if not totally surprising – that Hillary Clinton still refuses to give the pacific trade deal her support.

Next month’s trade votes also will be a test of just how low support in Congress for measures backed by “big corporations” has fallen. We won’t make a prediction; but this one bears watching.

I’ll be back in Washington tonight for dinner at the State Department with Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, featuring an interview with U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios.

Enjoy the day.

Alan Murray


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