Our Impact

How Third Way Spurred Huge Gains in Free Trade

In February 2008, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama vowed that if they took office, they would repeal NAFTA.

But after President Obama was inaugurated the following January, what actually happened was nearly the opposite.

Third Way took the leading role on the Democratic side to pass three expansive trade deals—with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama—that are collectively worth billions of dollars to American exporters and are creating tens of thousands of US jobs. As an intellectual base camp on trade, we provided research, memos, and talking points to Congress and spent hundreds of hours defending, educating, and backing each of the House and Senate Democrats who supported free trade bills.

With these victories in hand, we turned our attention to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a twelve-country agreement that the Obama Administration negotiated with nations that combine for 40% of global trade. It was a very tough job, given the vast differences in regulatory standards and economic capabilities of the partnership countries.

The political problems were not only international. Despite clear evidence that the deal would raise incomes and exports at home, public opinion on TPP was so divided that simply passing the preliminary legislation that Obama needed to negotiate the
final deal (called TPA) seemed unlikely.

When Third Way got involved, failure seemed imminent. We told the Administration they needed to make it clear to Americans that if we don’t set the rules in Asia, China will. We knew from our public opinion research that identifying an opponent like China
was the only way to convince the public that the deal would be good for America.

Later that month, the Administration released the full text of the TPP, along with a statement using our exact framing. President Obama repeated it constantly in interviews, in his addresses to Congress, and in conversations with his staff. As they later told us, this concerted effort turned out to be instrumental in passing TPA.

Unfortunately, TPP itself didn’t come to a vote before the 2016 election, and President Trump has abrogated the agreement in service to his destructive protectionism. But when he is gone and an internationalist is once again in the Oval Office, our approach to trade will be the only way to reassert America’s role as a leader of global commerce.

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Third Way is a non-profit organization. Our policy innovations, rigorous research, and issue campaigns are made possible by the sustained engagement and generous contributions of our supporters. For more information on how to support the work of Third Way, please contact:

Emily Sternfeld
Vice President of Development and External Affairs
(202) 384 1700
[email protected]


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