Washington, DC - Hillary Clinton is in a tough spot on trade. As US President Barack Obama bends over backwards in an attempt to sell an international pact to the American people and Congress, everyone wants to know whether the leading Democratic candidate for president supports it. But her answer, no matter what it is, will undoubtedly cause her some bumps on the road to the White House.

On Monday, trade ministers from 12 countries, including the United States, agreed to a massive trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is the largest free-trade deal ever negotiated by the US and covers 40 percent of the world's economy. The day after it was reached, Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, reiterated the administration's mantra of support for TPP: If the US doesn't sign this now, China will fill the void, putting the US at a "significant disadvantage" economically.

But the Obama administration's biggest fight on TPP is about to begin. In order for it to become a reality, the US Congress needs to ratify the deal by a straight yes-or-no vote. That's likely to happen early next year, right in the middle of a heated primary campaign when candidates will need all the support they can get.

So far, as a Democratic presidential candidate, Clinton has not made her position clear on TPP, even though, as US secretary of state, Clinton helped lay the groundwork and even backed the deal at various times. "We think this holds out great economic opportunities to all participating nations," she told reporters in January 2013.


Explainer: Deconstructing the Trans-Pacific Partnership


Her husband, former US President Bill Clinton, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. NAFTA eased barriers on things like automobiles, textiles and agricultural products. But it also made it easier for US companies to relocate some of its operations to Mexico. And that's exactly what some companies - like Whirlpool, General Electric and Chrysler - did. States like Ohio, New York, Michigan, California and Indiana all saw companies move jobs south of the border thanks to NAFTA.

It's not surprising, then, Democratic lawmakers from those states have led the charge against the TPP. "Deals like this [TPP] have wreaked havoc across our economy over the past quarter-century of their existence," said Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio congresswoman who has fought against the agreement for years. "I will continue to do all I can to stop this kind of dangerous job-killing deal."

Dilemma

Therein lies the dilemma for candidate Clinton. "If Clinton outright opposes TPP, it will look a bit disingenuous and raises the risk of allegations of flip-flopping," said John Hudak from the Brookings Institution. But she will still need to throw a bone to Democrats who oppose the agreement, particularly union members and environmentalists.

Thea Lee, spokesperson for one of the country's largest unions, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said they met with Clinton in July and discussed TPP. Like everyone else, the AFL-CIO is waiting to hear Clinton's stance on the deal, but they "will likely be asking our elected officials to oppose TPP", said Lee.

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Simon Rosenberg, who has worked on Democratic campaigns, thinks Clinton should support the deal, arguing that "the downsides of going against the president on something this important to him and his administration is that it could make winning over Obama loyalists that much harder".

One of the biggest reasons for her dilemma is the fact her primary Democratic opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, adamantly opposes the TPP, calling it, "a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy." Sanders has been gaining ground on the front-runner over the past two months.

For that reason, many analysts believe, Clinton will need to ensure she doesn't come down too hard on one side or the other. "She does have some space to disagree openly with some specific details of it [TPP], in an effort to put some sunlight between her and the president, and perhaps to appeal to some specific Democratic constituencies," Hudak said. She would be better off picking apart some aspects of the deal rather than outright opposing it, he added.

Source: Al Jazeera