WASHINGTON -- In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama asked Congress to grant his administration wide power to negotiate free-trade deals without too much meddling from lawmakers.
For the auto industry's stakeholders, it was like a boxing bell signaling the next round in a high-stakes global fight.
From Tokyo to Berlin to Washington, partisans on international trade have been staking out their positions in an effort to frame the debate to their advantage. Ford lobbyists are sounding alarms about currency manipulation as a protectionist tool. German automakers are denouncing the costs of tariffs and regulatory disparities. And in Japan, media reports are floating the notion that auto import barriers aren't the big stumbling block that they're made out to be.
The Obama administration is working on two fronts: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership with countries around the Pacific Rim. Together, the two blockbuster free-trade deals form a critical piece of Obama's economic agenda, with major implications for automakers.
Among the issues on the table are the elimination of tariffs that add thousands of dollars to the price of foreign-made cars and trucks; and in the EU-U.S. talks, mutual recognition of safety and emissions regulations from both sides of the Atlantic, which would sharply reduce vehicle development costs and make it more economical to sell vehicles globally.
Meanwhile, negotiators are working on a side deal to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would seek to ease rules that, critics say, effectively limit Japan's imports of U.S. autos.
The coming debate in Congress will be over whether to give the president Trade Promotion Authority, the so-called fast-track power that would allow the administration to negotiate the trade deals and bring them to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without amendments.
With both chambers of Congress now in the hands of the pro-business Republican Party, the treaties would appear to have more momentum. But that momentum won't go unchecked.
Ford Motor Co., long a vocal automaker in Washington on trade issues, took out an ad in Politico on Jan. 22 that used the global sales launch of the redesigned Mustang as a platform to call for rules prohibiting currency manipulation in free-trade deals, a veiled snipe at Japan, which Ford executives say has artificially depressed its currency to strengthen its exporters.