Obama’s war of words over trade deal puts pressure on Clinton

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Obama and Clinton have been opponents, allies and colleagues over the years. (Photo credit: CBSTV Videos)

President Barack Obama’s decision to escalate his fight with the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party over a free trade deal with Asia is unwelcome news for Hillary Clinton.

Former secretary of state Clinton, who is now running for president, had been keeping her head down on the trade issue — and on the fast-track trade authority that Obama is seeking in order to execute the deal. Despite her past support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which she in 2012 called “the gold standard,” she has remained noncommittal on it since announcing her presidential bid.

Labor and progressive groups are eager to see Clinton come out swinging against the deal. But Clinton would open herself up to charges of flip-flopping and cynical pandering if she did so now, given her past remarks and her generally pro-trade positions in the past.

“What would be her reason for opposing it? She hasn’t laid the groundwork for that with any articulation of serious concerns about this trade deal,” said a senior-ranking Democratic congressional aide. “She probably wants fast-track authority if she’s going to be president.”

If Clinton were to vocally back the deal, however, that could give oxygen to one of the other declared or likely candidates for the Democratic nomination, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, both of whom oppose the deal. And while Clinton at present far outpaces both men in polls, fighting members of her own party on the trade deal could pave the way for union endorsements for her opponents and give them strength on the ground in early-contest states.

“TPP is treacherous territory. It proves that … even without a dozen well-funded primary opponents, she’ll still have to navigate a bunch of tough issues that various segments of her base consider critically important — all without alienating swing voters for the general,” said Dan Newman, a Democratic consultant who is working for California U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris and the state’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom.

Union and liberal organizer support for Clinton’s opponents would drain resources, time and energy from her campaign that otherwise could have gone to preparing for a general election.

“Whatever the merits of the TPP, this issue has become a surrogate within the party for a larger debate about corporate power and fairness, which puts her in a difficult spot,” said David Axelrod, a former top political adviser to the president.

“She was the [secretary of state] when these negotiations began, and the previous Clinton administration was closely identified with trade. But it is a volatile issue, and supporting it could add to fears on the left that she is too oriented toward big business and give additional impetus to a potential primary challenger,” Axelrod said.

“In the end, this is one where [Clinton] is going to have to take a gut check and choose. And she would probably do best by choosing the side in which she genuinely believes, even if it buys her some grief,” he noted. Obama “could relieve some of that pressure” on Clinton “by making a compelling case” for the trade deal, he said.

The president should stress “a cooling-off period for review before he signs and another before Congress votes, and specific standards for labor, human rights, and the environment, with the ability of Congress to rescind fast track if the standards are deemed not to be met,” Axelrod said.

When asked if he thought Obama was doing enough to make a “compelling case” for the deal, Axelrod said, “It’s a tough hill to climb. He just needs to keep climbing.”

Obama and the White House have been feuding with Warren for days over her opposition to the trade deal. But during the weekend, the president made his most pointed comments about the liberal Democratic senator from Massachusetts, in an interview with Yahoo News.

Obama told Yahoo’s Matt Bai that Warren is “absolutely wrong” in her opposition to the trade deal and that her warnings of a Republican president using authorities given to the executive in the deal to unwind Wall Street regulations are “made up.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said of Warren’s objections to the bill.

The president also suggested that Warren’s opposition is motivated more by her own ambition than by righteous ideology. “The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else, and she’s got a voice that she wants to get out there.”

Warren quickly responded on Monday morning, reiterating her concerns in detail to the Washington Post. It is a quickly intensifying intraparty squabble that will be increasingly hard for Clinton to ignore.

“Given how this is developing, I think she will need to pick a lane,” said Iowa Democratic operative Jeff Link.

In Iowa, “we tend to support trade deals,” he said, and so if Clinton were to support the deal, it would not hurt her in the first primary or caucus state.

But in the broader Democratic Party, there is money and organization that is poised to punish Clinton if she does step out and take a position in favor of the trade deal.

“Unless there is some miracle compromise to convert the bill’s fierce opposition, it’s a very risky thing for a candidate to support. Why wade into danger when you can promise to sign a better version as president?” asked Gil Duran, a California political operative who has worked for Governor Jerry Brown. “Any candidate who backs this turkey stands to lose some very important blocs of support.”

A Clinton spokesman did not answer a question about whether Clinton would take a position on the issue. In roughly a month as a presidential candidate, Clinton has answered only eight questions from the media. She has not spoken with the press in almost three weeks.

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