- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2015

The next 48 hours could determine whether Barack Obama’s presidency effectively has ended.

If Mr. Obama somehow persuades dozens of Democratic lawmakers to change their minds by Tuesday night and vote with him on a second attempt to pass trade legislation, he will rescue an agreement that is designed to be the centerpiece of his foreign policy shift toward Asia and is the major economic initiative of his second term.

But if the defeat delivered by the House on Friday stands, Mr. Obama will lose much more than his desired Trade Promotion Authority. Unable to lead a majority of his own party, he will enter the final 18 months of his presidency badly weakened in the eyes of foreign powers and the U.S. public.

“The loss on the trade bill is a humiliating one for the Obama presidency,” said Charles Lipson, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. “It tells you something about him and something about his party. Six years of ignoring the Hill and building no relationships there comes with a price. So does the president’s low popularity. It means he cannot protect vulnerable members of his own party if they vote with him.”

The blow also comes in a make-or-break month for Mr. Obama’s legacy-building efforts. Besides trying to salvage the crucial trade deal, Mr. Obama is awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court that could unravel Obamacare, and he is racing against a June 30 deadline to reach a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

The key roll call vote Friday came on a measure to grant financial aid to displaced workers, up to $450 million in annual assistance that Democrats have long championed. But 144 Democrats joined 158 Republicans in rejecting the measure, a stunning loss for the president that left the overall trade legislation in limbo.

Top Republicans who allied with Mr. Obama on trade placed full blame on congressional Democrats. Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Sunday that if the president loses clout as a legislative force, Democrats will be fully responsible.

“The Democrats abandoned their president, the leader of their party, in droves on a bill and a program they demanded as part of this. To me, it was stunning that they would do this to the leader of their party,” Mr. Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“They are the ones who are making him a very lame duck president, his own party,” Mr. Ryan said.

House Republican leaders, who support granting the president Trade-Promotion Authority, say they will try to bring up the matter for another vote by Tuesday.

“We are not done with this,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican.

Some analysts say the administration’s stature on the world stage is hanging in the balance. Negotiations on sticking points of the sprawling Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free trade pact with 11 other Pacific Rim nations including Japan and Australia, have slowed while the potential trading partners wait to see whether Mr. Obama will have the authority to conclude the agreement without major changes by Congress.

“If TPA stays in limbo, it means that ongoing trade negotiations will become much more difficult,” said Frances B. Smith, an analyst on trade issues at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “How can countries negotiate in good faith with the U.S. when they know the specifics of their agreements can be pulled apart and dealt with separately rather than as a whole?”

The setback put Mr. Obama’s diminishing clout on full public display. He made two personal appeals to Democrats in the 24 hours leading up to Friday’s vote, in addition to phone calls, and even hosted four lawmakers aboard Air Force One on a trip with him to Europe.

The president made an impromptu visit Thursday night to lawmakers playing in the annual congressional baseball game at Nationals Park, bearing a gift of White House-brewed beer. He mingled in the Democrats’ dugout and greeted Republicans, who were chanting “TPA!” His friendly gestures toward the Republicans reportedly didn’t sit well in the Democrats’ dugout.

Mr. Obama followed up Friday morning with a trip to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Democratic caucus, his first such pep rally with his own party in two years. It was then that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, one of the president’s most important partners over more than six years of legislative battles, told him that she was leaning against the trade assistance measure.

In his meeting with Democratic lawmakers, Mr. Obama urged them to “play it straight” and pleaded for their support. But he also offended some Democrats by saying he had the nation’s best interests at heart and suggesting that lawmakers who opposed the trade measure were motivated by political considerations.

Many Democrats view the trade measure as poisonous to their re-election chances next year because of constituents’ concerns that U.S. jobs are being lost overseas.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who attended the meeting, said Mr. Obama “tried to both guilt people and then impugn their integrity.”

“He’s ignored Congress and disrespected Congress for years and then he shows up at the baseball game with homemade beer, and then comes to the caucus and lectures us for 40 minutes about his values and whether or not we’re being honest by using legislative tactics to try and stop something which we believe is a horrible mistake for the United States of America and questions our integrity,” Mr. DeFazio told reporters afterward. “It wasn’t the greatest strategy.”

Said Mr. Lipson, “Even when President Obama tries to win votes, he personalizes and belittles the people on the other side.”

As the president tries to forge some political momentum in this crucial month, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the rift with House Democrats on trade won’t spill over into the president’s other priorities. He noted that nearly all House Democrats signed a letter last month in support of Mr. Obama’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who’s suggested that that priority is going to be threatened just because we might have a disagreement over this particular issue,” Mr. Earnest said Friday.

But Mr. Lipson said the trade vote has exposed deeper fissures in the Democratic Party’s base heading into an election season.

“The left is now firmly against free trade as part of their general view about free markets,” he said. “What’s odd about that is that the labor base of the Democratic Party is no longer in the private, manufacturing sector. It’s public-sector unions, and they actually benefit from the lower prices associated with open markets. But the AFL-CIO had an internal log roll, bowing to the needs of the few remaining members in private-sector unions, and made it a litmus test.”

Both the White House and House lawmakers who support the trade package pointed to another vote that gives them hope. The House voted 219-211 on the proposal to grant Mr. Obama fast-track authority, with 28 Democrats in favor.

In his weekly address Saturday, Mr. Obama urged the House to vote again quickly on the measure.

“For the sake of those workers, their families and their communities, I urge those members of Congress who voted against trade adjustment assistance to reconsider and stand up for American workers,” Mr. Obama said. “This is about the kind of country we want to build for our kids and our grandkids. And if I did not think that smart new trade deals were the right thing to do for working families, I wouldn’t be fighting for it.”


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