Obama Trade Defeat Exposes Deep Party Divide

Obama Trade Defeat Exposes Deep Party Divide
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President Obama suffered a stinging rebuke from his party Friday, throwing into limbo his latest effort to aid U.S. workers and exports. Democrats showed no qualms as they walked away from Obama’s personal appeals to support trade assurances they fear he lacks the political heft to deliver.

The muddled results in the House showcased how fervently the progressive wing of the Democratic Party wants to be seen by American workers as pushing for higher wages, more jobs and environmental safeguards as the election season begins.

The trade debate, never easy for Democrats, is complicated by Obama’s reliance on Republicans for the bulk of his congressional support, the sprawling presidential contest, the face-off of large U.S. corporations that want the trade rules, and organized labor, which argues a trade pact with Asian countries would depress wages and siphon away jobs.

As an indication of the high stakes and white knuckles, Obama personally delivered his pitch on Capitol Hill, arguing once again that a trade deal could block China’s influence and benefit the U.S. economy. He told Democrats that opposing the legislation would in effect be embracing the conditions they sought to fix. To stand in the way of “smart” trade agreements “is to do nothing but preserve the long-term status quo for American workers, and make it even harder for them to succeed,” the president said in a statement Friday evening.

The White House tried to paint Obama’s loss as a victory, sounding a bit like a doctor who claims a patient’s surgery was a “success” even as the patient may be dying from complications. Because both the House and Senate passed trade promotion authority, the president celebrated a victory, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. House Democratic opposition to a separate, but essential, measure was a “procedural snafu,” he said.

“The House of Representatives has done the right thing, but the fight isn't over,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told labor supporters. “The debate over fast track [authority] so far has been a marvelous contrast to the corporate money and disillusionment that normally mark American politics today.”

Hillary Clinton, who has sidestepped her party’s debate about the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership pact with 11 other nations, will present herself as a progressive “fighter” for the middle class during a Saturday rally in New York. At the tip of Roosevelt Island, and standing next to President Clinton, who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the former first lady will say she wants to be president to become the champion for those squeezed out of opportunities to get ahead.

On the stump since her April launch, Clinton has told voters the U.S. economy is “rigged” to benefit corporations and CEOs. For months she has openly courted union backing, considered essential to a Democratic nominee’s financial and organizational support. In a campaign video titled “Fighter,” released Friday, her ad-makers focused on Clinton’s commitment to the needs of families, children and those “left behind.”

Liberal media and anti-trade Democrats turned up the heat following the House votes, suggesting that politicians’ unwillingness to take sides could put progressives’ bona fides in doubt.

Americans, however, are of two minds about trade: good for the economy, but not great for their jobs. Polls this year underscore why trade is tough for some Democratic candidates to navigate. Only 20 percent of Americans believe trade with other countries creates jobs. Only 17 percent say trade leads to higher wages. But 68 percent of Americans say growing trade and business ties with other countries are good for the country, according to the Pew Research Center.

The House drama Friday made it more challenging for Clinton to prolong her wait-and-no-comment stance, although the former secretary of state is expected to try. If the House returns to the trade conundrum next week, as the Republican majority suggested, Clinton will be traveling through South Carolina and Nevada, followed by fundraisers in Los Angeles, where sentiments are strong about protecting labor and the environment as part of trade pacts.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an outspoken opponent of fast-track authority (which would deny Congress power to amend the Trans-Pacific pact before voting a deal up or down), assailed Clinton Wednesday for her silence.

Sanders cheered Friday’s votes, which temporarily or permanently derailed a trade adjustment measure meant to help up to 100,000 workers dislocated by the effects of international trade. The defeat of the assistance measure – which included budget offsets Democrats opposed – put the separate fast-track legislation in procedural limbo because the House and Senate have not adopted identical measures to send to Obama.

“While the fight will no doubt continue, today’s vote is a victory for America’s working people and for the environment,” Sanders said in a statement. “It is clearly a defeat for corporate America, which has outsourced millions of decent-paying jobs and wants to continue doing just that.”

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, campaigning for the Democratic nomination in step with many of the left-leaning policies espoused by Clinton and Sanders, also applauded House Democrats. "The TPP would be a bad deal for our country,” he said in a statement. “Making it easier for multinational corporations to evade labor and environmental responsibilities in order to send American jobs overseas is a self-defeating strategy.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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