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Clock is ticking for Obama's man on massive trade deal

As the man pursuing a massive Pacific trade deal for President Barack Obama, Michael Froman faces a few challenges.

He's pushing an issue, trade expansion, that polls show the public isn't interested in. Democrats hate the idea, so he's relying on Republican cooperation with Obama to get it done. And the U.S. trade representative has just a few months to get it done before Washington turns its attention fully toward the 2016 presidential race.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman

Asked in an interview if the deal might collapse, Froman chuckles. "We're not considering failure," he said.

And oddly enough, he might not fail.

"The president's trade agenda is on a short list of issues where the Republican leadership has said this is something they want to work with him on," Froman said. Notwithstanding their fractious history with Obama, trade expansion is a core GOP belief. And now that they control both houses of Congress, Republicans have an incentive to chalk up at least one big accomplishment with the White House.

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Time is indeed short—some veteran trade observers believe the administration must persuade Congress to grant "trade promotion authority" by summer to complete talks with more than a dozen Asian nations, strike a final deal, and win approval from lawmakers. But Froman said his negotiating counterparts—including Japan, where big disagreements on agriculture and autos remains—are prepared for a closing whirlwind.

"Most of our trading partners follow our politics here closely—we all have our domestic processes to go through," he said. The goal is ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the end of 2015.

He attributes indifferent or even hostile public sentiment to economic insecurity and the checkered history of past deals. "They have a legitimate set of concerns," he said. "The question is whether trade deals are going to be able to help us shape the future, and shape globalization in a way that plays to American interests and American values."

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Froman insists that TPP will. He says the deal will include the sort of labor and environmental protections that critics faulted the North American Free Trade Agreement for lacking—and apply them not just with Mexico and Canada but with Asian partners comprising "40 percent of the global economy."

He cites particular benefits for small and medium-sized businesses that haven't been able to crack export markets, and under the deal will be able to hire more workers at higher wages in the U.S. And he says investors in a wide range of sectors will benefit.

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"When we enter these agreements we reduce manufacturing tariffs and nontariff barriers, agriculture tariffs and nontariff barriers," he said. "We open up services markets. This is going to affect in a positive way every sector of our economy.

"I've heard from a lot of investors, a lot of companies that are looking to determine where they should put their next factory," he said. "With these trade agreements, the U.S. will be at the center of a web of agreements giving unfettered access to two-thirds of the global economy. And that makes the U.S. an incredibly attractive place for investment."

Neither the public nor the Congress have yet bought that argument. Froman has a lot of work to do.