, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I’m sure glad I’m not the Financial Times headline writer who told readers the other day that “Obama seems to be winning over public, if not Congress, on trade.” The writer blew it not because there haven’t been recent poll results containing good news for a president seeking a big new Pacific Rim trade deal and sweeping fast track negotiating authority from Congress. He or she blew it because such surveys have been showing such sharply contradictory results – as a new New York Times/CBS News sounding just reminded us. In fact, the headline was also off base in suggesting that any polls can be a reliable indicator of public on an issue like trade, which is poorly covered by the national media and partly as a result largely unfamiliar to many Main Street Americans.

As I wrote recently, the Pew Foundation findings stressed by the Financial Times contained some big apparent contradictions – chiefly, showing that Americans’ support for the idea of trade agreements keeps rising impressively, but that large pluralities believe the deals have significantly harmed the economy.

Meanwhile, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch has done an excellent job exposing the weaknesses in another recent poll – from Reuters/Ipsos – that seems downright incompetent. The survey reported majority support for “new trade deals,” but these agreements were described as seeking to “promote the sale of goods overseas.” Talk about a leading question!

In fact, as Global Trade Watch noted, a previous Ipsos trade poll found that when a specific feature of Mr. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was included in a question (currency manipulation), nearly three quarters of Americans opposed the administration position. Moreover, that same survey showed 84 percent of the public agreeing that “protecting American manufacturing jobs” is more important than “getting Americans access to more products.”

The New York Times/CBS News results reported this morning contain more bad news for the president (and for that Financial Times headline writer). They show 55 percent to 42 percent public opposition to the president’s fast track request (which is accurately described). They show that although 78 percent of Americans have “heard or read…not much or nothing at all about the TPP (thanks, journalists!) they believe by a 22 percent to 16 percent margin that it will make fewer jobs available in the United States. (One third didn’t know or didn’t answer, and 29 percent doubted it would “make much difference.” And finally, 63 percent of respondents agreed that “Trade restrictions are necessary to protect domestic industries” while only 30 percent supported the view that “Free trade must be allowed, even if domestic industries are hurt by foreign competition.”

So for what they’re worth – and again, that’s open to big doubts – recent polls aren’t collectively sending any clear message on trade policy generally, and even muddier ones on the specific controversies Congress is dealing with today. But another body of evidence is less equivocal. As I noted in that recent post, most presidential candidates in both parties who have spoken out are running against Mr. Obama’s trade agenda. Others, especially Hillary Clinton, have conspicuously remained on the fence.

Of course, the primary voters these hopefuls will initially face are more partisan and ideological than the electorate as a whole. But candidates also know that their primary positions tend to stick with them during general campaigns. If on balance, this many professional politicians see fast track and the TPP as political losers, it’s hard to believe that they’re far off the mark.