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.
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.