Barack Obama’s Base Has Tuned Him Out

The president is not on the ballot, and on trade, the liberal grassroots is happy to remind everyone of that.

President Barack Obama arrives to speak about trade policy at Nike Headquarters on May 8, 2015 in Beaverton, Oregon.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
June 2, 2015, 4:01 p.m.

The White House is try­ing to turn up the heat on waver­ing House Demo­crats so far un­will­ing to side with Pres­id­ent Obama on the mul­tina­tion Pa­cific trade deal he is ne­go­ti­at­ing. Obama will ap­pear on loc­al TV sta­tions Wed­nes­day to pres­sure fence-sit­ters, and the White House has made clear he won’t for­get who helped the pres­id­ent in this time of need.

But his tar­get audi­ence has tuned him out.

Noth­ing in the pres­id­ent’s second term has bet­ter demon­strated his lame-duck status than his up­hill fight for Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity, a polit­ic­al real­ity that is be­ing ef­fect­ively hammered home by his erstwhile al­lies in the pro­gress­ive move­ment who are de­term­ined to beat him and are no longer con­cerned that they could weak­en a fel­low Demo­crat in the White House.

“Labor uni­ons and pro­gress­ives will be around for many elec­tion cycles to come. And Pres­id­ent Obama won’t be on the bal­lot any­more,” is the poin­ted mes­sage of Adam Green, one of the most ef­fect­ive and in­flu­en­tial pro­gress­ive lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton. Green is cofounder of the Pro­gress­ive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee (PCCC), a 950,000-mem­ber or­gan­iz­a­tion that grew out of Mo­ve­On.org. PCCC is one of sev­er­al lib­er­al groups that will hold what Green calls “a massive day of ac­tion” on the trade fight Wed­nes­day, to in­clude the re­lease of 2 mil­lion sig­na­tures op­pos­ing TPA.

Robert Borosage, pres­id­ent of the lib­er­al Cam­paign for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture, said the groups do not want Demo­crats in Con­gress to un­der­es­tim­ate the im­pact of their vote here. “We want people to un­der­stand that this is not one of those free votes where you can make up your mind and there are no con­sequences,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “This is a vote where vir­tu­ally the en­tire act­iv­ist base of the Demo­crat­ic Party is mo­bil­ized against this and against a pres­id­ent they re­spect and like, be­cause they think this is a fun­da­ment­al ques­tion for our coun­try about the struc­ture of our eco­nomy go­ing for­ward.

Green is push­ing the same mes­sage. “This im­pacts so many mil­lions of jobs that this vote will not be for­got­ten. It will be around for years. There is ar­gu­ably no big­ger vote that will im­pact more Amer­ic­an jobs than this [Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship] fast-track vote.”

Borosage, Green, and lead­ers of the AFL-CIO all say this could mean pro­gress­ive op­pos­i­tion to in­cum­bent Demo­crats in next year’s primar­ies. Already, Rep. Ami Be­ra, a two-term con­gress­man from a mar­gin­al dis­trict in Sac­ra­mento, Cali­for­nia has been tar­geted. The Cali­for­nia Labor Fed­er­a­tion has called his sup­port for Obama’s TPA “a slap in the face to those who worked so hard to elect him.” No primary op­pon­ent has sur­faced yet, but Be­ra, without suf­fi­cient funds, eas­ily could lose to a Re­pub­lic­an. 

The Cam­paign for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture has taken aim at the 13 Demo­crats who sup­por­ted TPA in the Sen­ate, put­ting out a fly­er with “SHAME­FUL” in large red let­ters over their pic­tures and the lament that “these Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors voted to shut out Amer­ica’s work­ers from the trade de­bate.” At least one of those sen­at­ors, Ron Wyden of Ore­gon, could face a primary chal­lenge be­cause of that vote.

“Demo­crats have been pretty coddled by their base,” said Borosage, not­ing that Re­pub­lic­an act­iv­ists have been less swayed by ar­gu­ments that they could cause a seat to flip to the op­pos­i­tion. “I think the base has to be in­creas­ingly as­sert­ive. Not on every vote, but on ma­jor ques­tions, people have to face con­sequences. That doesn’t mean we’re go­ing to go out and primary every sen­at­or. But I think one or two of these con­gresspeople are go­ing to get primar­ied.”

What is amaz­ing is how ir­rel­ev­ant an in­cum­bent pres­id­ent of the United States is to this de­bate at the grass­roots.

Ba­sic­ally, the anti-trade co­ali­tion sees no reas­on to waste en­ergy at­tack­ing a lame-duck pres­id­ent, whose mind is made up on this is­sue, who has been an ally in many past battles, and who could once again re­turn to the good graces of the act­iv­ists when this fight is con­cluded. They also feel a sense of lib­er­a­tion now that Obama can’t run again. “Es­pe­cially now that he is not run­ning for reelec­tion, there is no real ne­ces­sity for hav­ing his back, par­tic­u­larly when he’s on the wrong side of the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans,” Green said.

The White House in­sists Obama will not fade quietly in­to the back­ground. He will con­duct in­ter­views with TV sta­tions from Dal­las, El Paso, Seattle, Sac­ra­mento, and San Diego—all homes of pro-trade Demo­crats—on Wed­nes­day. And press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est said Obama will have the back of any Demo­crats who face chal­lenges be­cause they sup­por­ted him on trade.

“The pres­id­ent be­lieves that he’s got a strong case to make, and if it be­comes ne­ces­sary for the pres­id­ent to make that case in the con­text of a Demo­crat­ic primary con­test, the pres­id­ent’s com­mit­ted to those mem­bers of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives that face that kind of pres­sure that the pres­id­ent will stand with them,” Earn­est said.

Earn­est was less clear about what it means to stand with them, con­tend­ing that it is not yet time to say if Obama will cam­paign in their dis­tricts. “I don’t want to fore­shad­ow any tac­tics right now,” he said.

The press sec­ret­ary warned against un­der­es­tim­at­ing the clout of the pres­id­ent. “There’s ample data to point you to that in­dic­ates the in­flu­ence that the pres­id­ent has among Demo­crat­ic voters all across the coun­try,” Earn­est said. “And hav­ing the strong sup­port of the most pop­u­lar fig­ure in Demo­crat­ic polit­ics for your reelec­tion I think most Demo­crats are go­ing to find be­ne­fi­cial to their con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns.”

But make no mis­take, while lib­er­al and labor act­iv­ists may not be do­ing what Obama wants, they are still pay­ing at­ten­tion—as wit­nessed when the pres­id­ent cri­ti­cized a lib­er­al icon, Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren, telling Ya­hoo’s Matt Bai that “Eliza­beth is, you know, a politi­cian like every­body else” whose ar­gu­ments on trade “don’t stand the test of fact and scru­tiny.”

“People were out­raged,” re­called Green. “We ac­tu­ally had our highest num­ber of people call­ing Con­gress against the TPP when it was done in re­ac­tion to the pres­id­ent at­tack­ing Eliza­beth War­ren in such a petty way. It was like, really? You’re go­ing to at­tack the one per­son will­ing to take on cor­por­ate power? … He took this is­sue that could have oth­er­wise been wonky and made it very per­son­al. It was def­in­itely coun­ter­pro­duct­ive for him.”

Borosage was more philo­soph­ic­al about the at­tack. “That was just hard­ball,” he said. “Polit­ics is not bean­bag. You put the gloves on when you’re in a fight. So I didn’t hold that against the pres­id­ent. I just think his po­s­i­tion is wrong.”

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