For Froman, sleep wasn’t in the deal
U.S. trade representative only got 8 hours of shut-eye in 5 days to hammer out Trans-Pacific Partnership
Twenty-five years ago, Michael Froman helped a young student editor named Barack Obama publish the Harvard Law Review, bonding over politics during latenight snack breaks. This month, Froman was pulling all-nighters again for his former classmate, this time putting the finishing touches on the largest international trade deal in U.S. history.
Over five days and nights in Atlanta, Froman, the U.S. trade representative, slept a total of eight hours and rarely ventured below the 14th floor of a Westin hotel. He and his counterparts from 11 Pacific Rim nations met hour after hour to hammer out tariff cuts and intellectual property regulations. In rare free moments, Froman slipped down to the Starbucks in the lobby, only to be accosted by a New Zealand dairy lobbyist or a Japanese journalist.
“International diplomacy is not elegant,” Froman said with a chuckle during an interview at the U.S. trade office, across the street from the White House.
His hard work paid off. Early last week, Froman tied a bow on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an expansive free trade and regulatory deal that was more than seven years in the making. The accord is one of President Obama’s top priorities, and when Froman returned to Washington, the president gave him a big hug and said, “Well done.”
For Froman, 53, the trade deal represents a career highlight in a decade and a half of public service handling international economic policy for the Clinton and Obama administrations. In between, he spent eight years on Wall Street as the head of Citigroup’s insurance division, but it was his relationship with Obama that drew him back to Washington, first as a campaign adviser, then as part of the administration.
Froman has been called the White House’s chief strategic
and salesman on the Pacific trade deal, a policy wonk whose mastery of the trade minutiae and constant presence on Capitol Hill has inspired a level of “From an fatigue” in some congressional offices.
The job has not been easy. Some lawmakers accused him of being secretive and opaque during the trade talks; labor leaders and environmentalists said he was prone to making empty promises and blowing off their concerns.
The trade office’s consultations have been “pathetically inadequate,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (DOhio) told Froman at a trade hearing in April. Brown added that it was easier to get information about the Iran nuclear deal or documents from the CIA.
Froman countered that his office had held hundreds of briefings on Capitol Hill and consulted 51 times with Brown’s office alone, including seven face-to-face meetings. But the senator wasn’t satisfied: “It begs the question: What are you hiding?” Brown declined to comment for this article, but his aides disputed Froman’s tally.
Froman insists he doesn’t take the criticism personally and said the tough politics was one reason he agreed to become trade ambassador in 2013, after spending Obama’s first term as deputy national security adviser for international economics.
Having helped launch the administration down the path to supporting the contentious trade deal, Froman recalled telling the president: “‘I want to make sure we execute on this properly.’ He agreed.”
His work is not anywhere close to done. The trade deal must still be ratified by Congress, which will vote early next year. Already, influential politicians, including Sen. Orrin G. Hatch( R-Utah) and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rod ham Clinton, have criticized the agreement.
So Froman hasn’t stopped selling. He made the rounds on Capitol Hill in the days after the trade deal was announced and took a train to Delaware on Friday to tout the agreement with Democratic Sens. Thomas R. Carper and Christopher A. Coons.
“Another chapter needs to be written in ‘Profiles in Courage,’ ” said Rep. Ron Kind (Wis.), one of the 28 House Democrats, out of 188, who voted to grant Obama special authority in June to complete the trade deal. “Mike has one of the calmest demeanors; nothing ever rattles him.”
Kind then set another high bar for him :“If the president and Mike did their job, we should be well north of 28 Democratic supportersin the House, now that they can point to language of what has actually been accomplished.”
Froman has a genial demeanor and can-do attitude that may be the natural byproducts of a life marked by a rapid rise to power but punctuated by personal tragedy. In January 2009, just days before Obama was sworn in, Froman’s eldest son, Jacob, 10, died of a rare form of pediatric brain cancer. Froman was in New York for the funeral and, although he was a member of Obama’s transition team, watched the inauguration on television.
“Some people say to me, ‘Oh, Mike must work so hard so he does not have to think about this,’ ” said Miriam Sapiro, Froman’s former deputy. “But he’s always worked hard.”
In fact, there was a kernel of truth in the analysis.
Initially, Froman had decided not to enter the administration because he was concerned about the demands a White House job would take on his family as they sought to care for his sick son. When it became clear that Jacob would not survive, Froman reconthinker sidered and talked it over with Obama.
“I remember me saying, ‘I did not think I would come into the administration, but now I feel like I may very well need to come in to deal with this,’ ” Froman said. Over the years, Froman and Vice President Biden, who has suffered his own family losses, have offered support for each other and talked about how throwing themselves into their work helped them with their grief, associates said.
At the White House, Froman served as the “sherpa” to the massive Group of Eight and Group of 20 economic summits each year. He also organized interagency meetings to formulate the administration’s position on the TPP, talks on which had begun under the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration announced that it would re-join the talks in 2010, as part of a strategy to shift U.S. foreign policy attention toward Asia.
During that time, Froman’s wife, Nancy Goodman, founded a nonprofit organization, Kids v. Cancer, that promotes pediatric cancer research. The group helped write the Creating Hope Act, a measure passed by Congress in 2012 that provides federal incentives to spur the development of cancer drugs.
On a wall in Froman’s office hangs a framed photo of his daughter, Sarah, then 1 1/2 and wearing a pink dress, chasing Obama around his desk in the Oval Office on the day the president signed the bill. Froman and Goodman have another son, Benjamin, 13, who is a member of the rock band Twenty20 with the sons of other White House staff members, including former press secretary Jay Carney.
Froman knows the lyrics to the band’s songs, and he recently dashed out of his office — on a Sunday — to catch a Twenty20 show at a block party. Years ago, when they lived in New York City, he and his wife invited the musician Bono, who lived down the street, to their home to make pizza for dinner. Benjamin showed Bono’s sons how to play the musical video game Guitar Hero.
“We’re singing Beatles songs on Guitar Hero with Bono,” Froman said, shaking his head in disbelief at the memory. They’ve kept in touch — Froman attending U2 concerts and Bono, whose ONE Campaign advocates eradicating poverty and disease in developing nations, bending Froman’s ear on U.S. economic policy in Africa.
Froman exhibits no hint of exhaustion, despite having traveled to two dozen countries for his job. But his boss is determined to keep him inspired and energized. On a shelf near his desk is a small book titled, “Lincoln’s Speeches & Writings” — a birthday gift from the president.
“Thanks for your tireless work this year,” Obama wrote in the inscription. “Here are a few words from a predecessor of mine.”
U.S. trade representative Michael Froman is mobbed by Japanese reporters in April during the Trans-Pacific Partnership process.
In a photo that hangs in the office of U.S. trade representative Michael Froman, below, President Obama plays with Froman’s daughter, Sarah. Froman and the president have a relationship that stretches back to their time on the Harvard Law Review.