NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

President Obama unwisely ratchets up feud with Senator Warren over fast-track, TPP

In a just-pub­lished inter­view with polit­i­cal colum­nist Matt Bai, who now writes for Yahoo, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma has unwise­ly cho­sen to ratch­et up his feud with Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren of Mass­a­chu­setts over the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship (TPP) and fast-track leg­is­la­tion that would require a final ver­sion of the TPP to receive an up or down vote in Con­gress not sub­ject to amend­ment or fil­i­buster.

“She’s absolute­ly wrong,” Oba­ma said when Bai asked about War­ren’s oppo­si­tion, appar­ent­ly not even wait­ing for Bai to actu­al­ly ask a ques­tion.

Oba­ma did­n’t stop there.

“The truth of the mat­ter is that Eliz­a­beth is, you know, a politi­cian like every­body else,” he told Bai. “And you know, she’s got a voice that she wants to get out there. And I under­stand that. And on most issues, she and I deeply agree. On this one, though, her argu­ments don’t stand the test of fact and scruti­ny.”

This isn’t the first time Oba­ma has gone after War­ren on TPP, and judg­ing from this inter­view with Bai, it’s unlike­ly to be the last, either.

The Pres­i­dent is mak­ing a seri­ous mis­take by belit­tling and dis­miss­ing the con­cerns War­ren has raised. He says War­ren is “wrong”, but does­n’t go much fur­ther than that. He has­n’t addressed War­ren’s argu­ments on the mer­its.

And that’s because he can’t: The trade scheme he’s defend­ing is a secret. The Amer­i­can peo­ple haven’t been allowed to read any of the drafts. Only mem­bers of Con­gress have been giv­en an oppor­tu­ni­ty to look. (Their staffs have not been afford­ed the same priv­i­lege, and they can’t take mate­ri­als home.)

Oba­ma’s rebut­tal of crit­i­cisms lev­eled at fast-track and TPP by the AFL-CIO and sen­a­tors like War­ren pret­ty much boils down to My posi­tion is defen­si­ble and sup­port­ed by rea­son, yours isn’t … which is very con­de­scend­ing.

Or, to use Oba­ma’s actu­al words:

I had a con­ver­sa­tion with all the labor lead­ers before this start­ed,… I’ve had a con­ver­sa­tion with some of the more pro­gres­sive mem­bers of Con­gress before. And I’ve lis­tened to their argu­ments. And, as I said before, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, their argu­ments are based on fears. Or they’re fight­ing NAFTA, the trade deal that was passed twen­ty-five years ago, or twen­ty years ago. I under­stand the emo­tions behind it. But when you break down the log­ic of their argu­ments, I’ve got to say that there’s not much there there.

Oba­ma may not want to admit it, but emo­tions are behind his posi­tion, too. After all, humans are feel­ing crea­tures.

We can claim that we make deci­sions based on cool rea­son, but research has shown this is a myth. Peo­ple are emo­tion­al beings first, and ratio­nal beings sec­ond. We are con­stant­ly using the ratio­nal part of our minds to jus­ti­fy deci­sions and choic­es made on the basis of what we are feel­ing.

We can see from Oba­ma’s word choice that he’s not react­ing dis­pas­sion­ate­ly to War­ren at all. These are not the words of a per­son rea­son­ing with a cool head.

He’s frus­trat­ed — because he’s watched as War­ren and her col­leagues, includ­ing Sher­rod Brown and Bernie Sanders, have ral­lied the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s pro­gres­sive base to their side, against the trade pro­mo­tion author­i­ty leg­is­la­tion he wants, and the mul­ti-nation trade pact it is meant to fast-track.

The White House has been try­ing to win over waver­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers through rides on Air Force One and pres­i­den­tial vis­its to states like Ore­gon.

What Oba­ma does­n’t seem to real­ize is that he has noth­ing to gain and every­thing to lose by turn­ing on his base and ratch­et­ing up a pub­lic feud with Eliz­a­beth War­ren. Every time he dis­mis­sive­ly declares that War­ren is “wrong”, he dimin­ish­es his cred­i­bil­i­ty and gives War­ren a big­ger bul­ly pul­pit from which to respond.

Attack­ing your base is dumb pol­i­tics. Repub­li­cans know this, which is why they try to avoid it. Some­times, their frus­tra­tion boils over, and we hear the likes of John McCain or Pete King grum­ble about the Tea Par­ty’s influ­ence with­in the Repub­li­can ranks. But that’s usu­al­ly only when the Repub­li­can base is demand­ing a very extreme, unpop­u­lar course of action (like forc­ing DHS to par­tial­ly shut down) that would cause severe short-term dam­age to the Repub­li­can Par­ty’s image.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic base’s oppo­si­tion to the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship is based both on prin­ci­ple and on evi­dence. The much-hyped trade pacts of the past have been bad for Amer­i­can work­ers, bad for Amer­i­ca’s man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, and bad for our econ­o­my. They’ve result­ed in few­er jobs and big­ger trade deficits.

And yes, NAFTA is a good exam­ple.

Since the admin­is­tra­tion refus­es to share the text of the TPP, it can’t be fair­ly eval­u­at­ed, but what has leaked so far is extreme­ly trou­bling.

If Pres­i­dent Oba­ma wants to leave office fly­ing high, then he should stop spend­ing valu­able polit­i­cal cap­i­tal pur­su­ing fast-track author­i­ty that most Amer­i­cans do not want him to have, and get back to cham­pi­oning pol­i­cy direc­tions that will actu­al­ly strength­en Amer­i­cans’ health and pros­per­i­ty.

It seemed for a time that the White House had real­ized that work­ing with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base was the way for­ward. Since the 2014 midterms, the Pres­i­dent has backed strong net neu­tral­i­ty rules (which the FCC sub­se­quent­ly vot­ed to adopt), opposed drilling in the Arc­tic Refuge, took exec­u­tive action on immi­gra­tion, and opened a new chap­ter in U.S. rela­tions with Cuba.

All of those actions gen­er­at­ed a lot of good­will, and deserved­ly so. The Pres­i­dent should be build­ing on his suc­cess­es and reach­ing for high­er heights. Instead, he’s jeop­ar­diz­ing the good­will he’s earned by inef­fec­tive­ly push­ing a secre­tive trade pact that nei­ther the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base nor the Amer­i­can peo­ple want.

The Pres­i­den­t’s deci­sion to sin­gle Eliz­a­beth War­ren out for crit­i­cism is par­tic­u­lar­ly bone­head­ed. War­ren is a trans­for­ma­tive leader who under­stands how to build grass­roots pow­er. She rel­ish­es oppor­tu­ni­ties to go up against nar­cis­sis­tic cap­tains of indus­try, lenient reg­u­la­tors sleep­ing on the job, or way­ward Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dents. Attempt­ing to mar­gin­al­ize her is a fool’s errand.

Wall Street banks, which wield enor­mous pow­er and influ­ence in our nation’s cap­i­tal, have found this out the hard way. They’ve dis­cov­ered, much to their hor­ror, that going after War­ren just makes her stronger.

Their many attacks on her have back­fired spec­tac­u­lar­ly, begin­ning with when they mount­ed a furi­ous behind-the-scenes cam­paign to ensure she was­n’t nom­i­nat­ed to be the per­ma­nent head of the Con­sumer Finan­cial Pro­tec­tion Bureau.

When Oba­ma decid­ed to nom­i­nate Richard Cor­dray instead of War­ren, they thought they’d won. They were wrong. War­ren soon became a can­di­date for U.S. Sen­ate, seek­ing to reclaim Ted Kennedy’s seat in Mass­a­chu­setts. The banks spent heav­i­ly against her, but she hand­i­ly beat them and their lap­dog Scott Brown.

Fol­low­ing the elec­tion, the banks lob­bied to keep War­ren off the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee. And once again, they failed. War­ren was named to the com­mit­tee and has since used her posi­tion to exer­cise bad­ly-need­ed over­sight over Wall Street and the fed­er­al agen­cies that are sup­posed to reg­u­late Wall Street.

It’s tak­en a few years, but the banks and their lob­by­ists have start­ed to real­ize that pick­ing fights with War­ren just isn’t worth it.

As for­mer Trea­sury offi­cial Tony Frat­to recent­ly told Bloomberg Mar­kets: “It would be fool­ish for finan­cial insti­tu­tions to get into a head-to-head with Sen­a­tor War­ren… It’s exact­ly what she wants, and it’s a debate you can’t win.”

Hav­ing now been Pres­i­dent for six years, Barack Oba­ma knows that the Repub­li­can Par­ty’s base will reflex­ive­ly oppose any­thing and every­thing he pro­pos­es. He can’t win with them. As we have seen, there are a fair num­ber of Repub­li­cans in Con­gress who will always vote as the base demands, and who can­not be cor­ralled, cowed, or bought off by Repub­li­can con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship. John Boehn­er has lit­tle influ­ence over these peo­ple, and Oba­ma has none at all.

Pur­su­ing a Clin­ton-style tri­an­gu­la­tion strat­e­gy with the Repub­li­can Con­gress on any issue is thus not a smart move for the White House. John Boehn­er and Mitch McConnell are sim­ply not part­ners that Oba­ma can trust or depend on.

Oba­ma is set­ting him­self up for fail­ure by divid­ing his own par­ty and pro­ject­ing the weak­ness­es of his own sales pitch for fast-track and the TPP onto the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s pro­gres­sive lead­ers. He does­n’t even have the sup­port of Nan­cy Pelosi and Har­ry Reid for this leg­is­la­tion, which real­ly says some­thing, because Pelosi and Reid have a long his­to­ry of clos­ing ranks behind the Oba­ma White House.

If the Pres­i­dent con­tin­ues to lash out, as he did in today’s inter­view with Bai, he will find him­self with few­er friends and allies. I can’t imag­ine that is what the White House wants. But that’s what is going to hap­pen to them. The more they blun­der, the more polit­i­cal pow­er and moral legit­i­ma­cy they cede to Eliz­a­beth War­ren.

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