WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday declared himself "much more optimistic" than he was last year about completing a major trade deal with Pacific Rim countries.
At the same time, the president acknowledged to executives on his advisory export council that a tough sales job will be necessary on a commerce issue certain to put him at odds with fellow Democrats during the last two years of his presidency.
Singling out a possible accomplishment with a new Republican Congress, Obama said that international trade talks on the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership have progressed and urged corporate leaders to be ready to make the case to their workers.
"It doesn't mean that it's a done deal," he said, "but I think the odds of us being able to get a strong agreement are significantly higher than 50-50 whereas last year I think it was still sort of up for grabs."
The administration is also negotiating a European trade deal, and Republican leaders have pointed to those two international negotiations as possible common ground with the white House when the new Congress convenes next year with the GOP in charge of both chambers.
Obama conceded that the trade agreements will face obstacles, including opposition from organized labor and from a public perception that trade has weakened U.S. manufacturing by encouraging companies to move overseas. But Obama said "that horse is out of the barn."
"Much of that shift in search of low-wage labor has already occurred and yet we don't have access to those markets that are growing and no levers to force these other countries to increase their labor standards and their environmental standards," Obama told about a dozen executives. "So that instead of fighting the last war, what we need to be doing is looking forward."
In a statement ahead of the meeting, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said, "It is our hope that the president will find a way to bring his party on board with trade legislation that would give the administration the tools it needs to expand opportunities for American workers through increased exports."
The president also expressed hope for achieving an overhaul in corporate taxes, noting that U.S. companies face the highest corporate tax rate in the world, "on paper."
"There are so many loopholes that some end up paying a much lower rate; some pay the full freight," he said. "It distorts our allocation of capital. It makes us less competitive relative to businesses that are headquartered overseas. We need to fix that."
Obama also used the meeting with his export council to announce a competition for two manufacturing hubs — centers designed to promote innovation and production by connecting federal agencies with academic institutions. The announcement would bring Obama halfway to his pledge to create 15 such institutes.
The White House said each hub will get $70 million or more in federal money that would be matched by at least $70 million from the private sector.
He also announced a $100 million expansion in an apprenticeship program for aspiring manufacturing workers.