President Obama's trip to Asia is one important respect was bound to be a failure before he took off from Andrews Air Force Base for Tokyo: he wasn't going to get approval of a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. That's not because the special trade representative is incompetent; he isn't. It's because Obama has not secured trade promotion authority from Congress. Without TPA, Congress can amend any trade agreement and, knowing that, other nations are not going to make concessions because they fear Congress will take out of any agreement provisions that they want and that the president's STR has agreed to.

So far as appears on the record, Obama has not lifted a finger--or, to use his own parlance, he has not picked up the phone or applied pen to paper, to get Democrats in Congress to even allow a vote on TPA. On the contrary, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid felt free to say that he wouldn't allow a vote, period. This Politico article makes it clear that congressional Democratic leaders feel free to march in step with labor unions and other interest groups opposed to TPP. It quotes Clinton administration appointee Kenneth Lieberthal as saying, “The issue of the president's ability to get what he needs from Congress is still not an issue that people in Asia have full confidence in.” Translation from diplomatese: “is not an issue that people in Asia have any confidence in at all.” This is in vivid contrast to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who both pressed Congress--and especially members of their own parties--for TPA and who then secured trade agreements that were of great benefit to the United States and our trading partners.

I haven’t heard much from those commentators who have hailed Obama as a thoughtful, moderate, responsible leader about Obama’s failure to press even slightly for TPA and his consequent failure to get agreement on TPP. Perhaps the sound of no hand clapping in applause for a trade agreement on his trip to Asia will inspire them to share their thoughts on this.