Lame duck: Democrats clip President Obama’s wings
WASHINGTON , D.C. (June 14, 2015) — It may go down as the day Barack Obama could no longer defy political gravity.
The President went all in Friday, placing his personal prestige on the line in a last-ditch effort to convince globalization-weary House Democrats to give him the power to negotiate the world’s biggest trade pact, a vital building block in his legacy. But he came up empty-handed when his own party mostly voted to repudiate the agreement — a setback that could have profound implications for America’s economy and its place in the world, as well as how Obama’s two terms are seen by history.
Until now, Obama has defied expectations that he is on an unstoppable slide to becoming a lame duck president, partly through his muscular use of executive power on issues such as immigration and climate change. But the fact that he has only 18 months to go in office and has often seemed loath to go the extra mile to build coalitions on Capitol Hill may have caught up with him.
All that his unusual embrace of in-person lobbying on behalf of the deal — capped by a trip to Capitol Hill on Friday morning — got him was an extraordinary personal rebuke from his own party.
“Whatever the deal is with the other countries, we want a better deal for American workers,” said top house Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker who helped drive Obama’s most enduring domestic victories into law but in her last-minute opposition gave substantial political cover to scores of Democrats to vote against their own president.
Other party stalwarts made clear that Obama’s efforts were too little, too late. There is a widespread feeling among Democratic lawmakers that trade deals, like massive pacts with Pacific nations and the European Union that the president is trying to conclude, have resulted only in the loss of millions of American jobs abroad. And they, too, seem to have grown tired of a tone and approach that has rankled many of the President’s opponents over the years.
“The President tried to both guilt people and impugn their integrity. I was insulted,” Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon told reporters after meeting with Obama.
Another Democrat told CNN’s Jake Tapper on condition of anonymity that the president’s speech was “fine until he turned it at the end and became indignant and alienated some folks. Bottom line, he may have swayed some Democrats to vote yes, but Pelosi sealed the deal to vote no.”
Another Democrat in the meeting agreed that Obama had actually hurt the chances of the bill going through.
“Democrats believe they often are taken for granted and not appreciated,” this second House Democrat told Tapper. “There was a very strong concern about the lost jobs and growing income inequality.”
The House Democrats’ vote against Obama also signals that the traditional political coalition that has seen trade deals with China, Vietnam, South Korea and Panama come into force over the last 15 years is fraying.
It’s one that has implications for the wider world as well as for domestic politics. Securing congressional support is crucial to Obama’s chances of convincing partners in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership to make concessions on tariffs and regulations. A second deal with Europe is anticipated after the completion of the TPP, which on its own represent more than 40 percent of the world’s GDP and 26 percent of global trade.
The TPP is also vital for the fruition of Obama’s signature Asia rebalancing policy. It is particularly key to framing a global set of trading rules that rising China would eventually have little choice but to follow, Obama aides said.
The President’s humiliation comes at an especially fraught time for his political legacy. In the next few weeks, Obama will learn whether he can succeed in delicate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and find out whether the Supreme Court has destabilized Obamacare, his signature domestic achievement.
The White House, however, was quick to scotch the notion that Friday’s reverse in Congress was an inexorable sign that Obama’s presidential clout is fading in the United States and abroad.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest attempted to paint Friday’s events as at just a “procedural snafu” and insisted that a bipartisan consensus remained for free trade on Capitol Hill — partly thanks to the work of the president.
The vote in the House of Representatives was part of a complicated set of maneuvers that would have given Obama the power to negotiate trade deals to Congress and to submit them for up-or-down votes with no amendments.
The White House took comfort in the fact that, in a symbolic vote, the House did endorse a bill giving Obama Trade Promotion Authority — the power to negotiate trade deals and submit them to a vote by lawmakers without amendments.
But though a majority of Republicans backed the effort, Obama could not persuade sufficient numbers of his own party to rally to his cause amid fierce resistance from trade unions and Rust Belt communities badly hit by the flight of blue-collar jobs abroad.
The fact Democrats that refused to support another measure, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance — offering retraining and other help to workers who lose their jobs to globalization — in sufficient numbers meant the TPA bill cannot move forward because of a procedural rule.
But the president issued a statement calling on Congress to try again to pass TAA, saying the failure to do so could punish 100,000 American workers.
“I urge the House to pass TAA without delay so that more middle-class workers can earn the chance to participate and succeed in our global economy,” Obama said.
But prospects for a do-over look uncertain at best. The decision by lawmakers to side with their constituents rather than their president suggests that members of Obama’s party may no longer be convinced that their best interests are served by standing with a man who will be out of office in a year and a half.
Friday’s vote is also reviving persistent questions that have dogged Obama, and that infuriate the White House, about whether the president’s distaste for the grubby business of politics is to blame for his setbacks on Capitol Hill.
Aides note that Obama made a last-minute visit to Capitol Hill to lobby members Friday; stopped by an annual baseball game involving members of Congress Thursday night; and spent hours on the phone trying to win support for the trade bill.
Jim Manley, a former senior aide to the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid, said that although some criticism of the White House’s outreach to Capitol Hill was merited in the past, this time Obama pulled out all the stops.
“As far as I can tell, they did everything they could this time, yet they fell short,” Manley said.
He acknowledged, however, that the administration could be blamed for not stepping up to sell the deal to the American people earlier on, given that negotiations have been taking place for several years.
He also noted that Obama is not the only one with a political problem. So far, leading Democratic White House contender Hillary Clinton, who was an architect of the TPP as secretary of state and will need union support in her bid, has refused to say whether she supports it or opposes the deal in its present form.
“The politics for her on this issue got a lot trickier,” said Manley.
But it’s isn’t 2017 yet, and if Obama is to continue to defy the lame duck label, the White House will need to engineer a quick political victory to prove his powers are not waning. If not, Obama’s vows to mount a strong “fourth quarter” for his presidency could be in doubt.