02/02/2014 08:31 pm ET Updated Apr 04, 2014

A Critical Test of Leadership

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama took a good first step in asking Congress to provide the tools he needs to close two of the most ambitious trade deals in U.S. history. But he faces an immediate challenge from within his party that could imperil negotiations, with huge stakes for the U.S. globally and for our economy at home.

At issue is Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which allows the president to send a trade agreement to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without amendments. Many Republicans reflexively oppose granting any request from the administration. But the biggest opposition is coming from Democrats skeptical of the value of free trade.

The day after the president's address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he opposed "fast track" authority. His remarks revealed the depth of a gulf among Democrats over trade, and sparked new criticism from Republicans as a sign that the president's party couldn't be lined up behind a major administration initiative.

For President Obama, this is a critical test of his leadership. Can he muster enough support for his trade agenda within his own party, and then assemble a bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress? Failure would be a great setback for U.S. prestige internationally, and a dismal signal for the president's remaining three years in office.

We've seen this movie before -- and it didn't end well. The last Democratic president to seek fast track authority on trade was Bill Clinton in 1997. The effort collapsed when then House Speaker Newt Gingrich was unable to marshal his Republican majority. It was an opportunity lost, ending a period of bipartisan cooperation on trade and stalling momentum created a few years earlier by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Repeating this history would be a mistake, especially as our economy struggles to create good jobs at high wages. But the president faces an uphill battle. Now is the moment for Democrats to pause and take full measure of the stakes involved in opposing fast track. It's time for Republican supporters of trade to rally. And it is essential that the president and his cabinet exert persistent, focused leadership to persuade the skeptics.

President Obama deserves much credit for advancing the most far-reaching trade agenda in a generation. The administration is nearing the finish line in negotiations of the Trans Pacific Partnership, an agreement with 11 Pacific Rim nations, including Japan and perhaps South Korea and others. Simultaneous talks are underway between the United States and the European Union over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership -- creating an economic NATO and the largest liberalized trade zone in the world.

Together, the agreements would lower barriers in markets accounting for more than 60 percent of the global economy.

Neither negotiation would survive a failure to renew Trade Promotion Authority, which expired in 2007. TPA reassures our negotiating partners that they will not agree to difficult concessions only to see Congress later force unilateral changes. Under TPA, Congress establishes negotiating goals and must be regularly consulted by the president. In exchange, Congress promises an up-or-down vote without amendment. No major trade legislation has passed Congress in decades without it.

President Clinton knew that because trade was so hard, its support had to be bipartisan. To push for NAFTA, he assembled a high-profile war room in the White House, led by a prominent Democrat, Bill Daley, and former Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel. The president worked members tirelessly. The bill eventually passed with 102 Democratic and 132 Republican votes, and a similarly bipartisan total in the Senate. By contrast, the 1997 effort to renew fast-track authority lacked that high-profile White House push -- helping seal its doom.

Over the last decades, global trade has proven essential to building employment and reducing inequality at home. One of every five jobs in the United States is tied to exports. More significantly for the long run, 95 percent of the world's customers live outside our borders. While many Americans have concerns about free trade, they say the benefits of U.S. involvement in the global economy outweigh the risks (by a 2-1 margin in a poll last month by the Pew Research Center).

Even so, last fall 151 House Democrats signed a letter expressing their opposition to granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority. Almost three dozen House Republicans followed suit. When the bill to renew TPA was introduced earlier this month, a number of Democratic Senators announced their opposition. They have now been joined by Sen. Reid.

The warning signs are clear, but so is the path forward. Now is the time for a full-court press from the White House. President Obama should be clear about the imperative of TPA and make the strong case for trade as a catalyst for job growth. Then he must press his cabinet to the task. Ambassador Froman is a skilled negotiator and advocate. His cabinet colleagues include many effective proponents of free trade and international engagement, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

Without a concerted effort, TPA may well fail, embarrassing us abroad, casting a shadow on the president's second term and hurting our economy in the long run. Why not instead show America and the world that the president and Congress, including leaders of his own party, can work together?

Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton during the NAFTA ratification fight. Nelson W. Cunningham was also a Clinton White House aide.