President Obama touted the benefits of free trade and a major upcoming trade deal with Pacific Rim nations at Nike's lush headquarters in Oregon Friday, hitting back at free-trade skeptics, as well as human rights activists who criticized his decision to visit the apparel giant.
Before speaking about how the pending 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership would benefit corporate giants such as Nike, Obama first extolled the virtues of expanding markets for small businesses in Oregon and across the United States.
Small businesses are responsible for 96 percent of exports, as well as two-thirds of all new job creation, Obama said.
"We have to be relentless in our efforts to support small businesses … and passing trade agreements is part of that agenda," he said.
The United States, he said, has open markets where exporters have few impediments to selling goods, but the reverse is not true. Other countries are placing too many barriers on U.S. exports, the president argued.
Instead of withdrawing from the world, as some free-trade opponents advocate, Obama said the U.S. should engage and write the new trade rules for a global economy.
If America doesn't, China will be all to eager to fill in the vacuum, he said.
"And they'll write the rules in favor of China and Chinese businesses," he said. "We're not going to be able to isolate ourselves from world markets — we need to be in there and compete. We need to make sure we're in there and make sure the rules are fair."
Leading up to Friday's visit to Nike, the White House came under fire for choosing the apparel giant to make a pitch for trade, with many human rights and labor activists pillorying the company for its record of outsourcing manufacturing jobs overseas to Asian companies with low wages and harsh conditions for workers.
Just hours ahead of the president's remarks, Nike announced plans to accelerate investment in "advanced footwear manufacturing" in the U.S. if Congress decides to give the president fast-track trade negotiating power and the Pacific deal is passed.
"Footwear tariff relief [in the Trans-Pacific Partnership] would allow Nike to accelerate development of new advanced manufacturing methods and a domestic supply chain to support U.S. manufacturing," the company said, noting that the move would create up to 10,000 manufacturing and engineering jobs in the U.S., as well as 40,000 indirect supply chain and service jobs over the next decade.
"Far more Nike products would be made in the U.S.A. and that means thousands of new jobs … and tens of thousands of jobs in Nike's supply chain here at home – that's what trade can do," Obama told the crowd.
He also specifically addressed complaints about Nike's supply factories in Vietnam, a country whose weak government and poor enforcement polices have led to abysmal labor conditions for workers there.
Under the Pacific trade pact, Obama said, Vietnam would be forced to raise its standards, pass a minimum wage and allow workers to form unions for the first time.
"It would be good for workers in Vietnam — so that's progress," he said, acknowledging that labor conditions in Vietnam would still fall far below those at Nike and the rest of the United States.
The president also acknowledged the deep division in his own party over passing more trade deals, but he said free-trade opponents are flat-out wrong, especially when it comes to the Pacific trade deal, which he said contains a historic level of labor and environmental protections.
"There have been a bunch of critics about trade deals generally and the TPP – and what's interesting is typically they're my friends in my party," he said, adding that "on this one, they've been whooping on me."
But he said he comes to his support for free-trade and the trade pact honestly and has worked to ensure that the mistakes that were made 20 years ago with the North American Free Trade Agreement are not repeated.
"I've run my last election. The only reason I do something is because I think its good for American workers and American businesses," he said. "I don't have any other rationale for what I do.
"On this issue of trade, I think some of my dearest friends are wrong."