Obama Compares Progressive Opposition to Trade Deal to “˜Death Panels’ as the Left Ramps Up Opposition

With trade legislation advancing in Congress, the White House and left-wing groups are turning their guns on each other.

President Barack Obama addresses the Organizing for Action Summit.
National Journal
Eric Garcia
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Eric Garcia
April 24, 2015, 8:39 a.m.

With Con­gress mov­ing le­gis­la­tion to give the White House more au­thor­ity on trade le­gis­la­tion, Pres­id­ent Obama is look­ing to al­lay the fears of some of his biggest sup­port­ers on the Left. But so far, that ef­fort is only draw­ing more blow­back from pro­gress­ives.

At a speech to a sum­mit hos­ted by Or­gan­iz­ing for Ac­tion, the or­gan­iz­a­tion cre­ated out of Obama’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns to ad­voc­ate for his policies and train or­gan­izers, Obama said he wanted to ad­dress the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing his trade policy.

“I want to talk about some stuff that cre­ates some con­tro­versy, be­cause it’s im­port­ant,” Obama said Thursday night. “And one of those policies right now that I’m fo­cused on is new trade agree­ments with oth­er coun­tries.”

This week, the Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee and House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee both passed Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity le­gis­la­tion, also known as “fast-track” le­gis­la­tion, which would make trade agree­ments like the 12-na­tion Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship sub­ject to an up-or-down vote in Con­gress without the abil­ity to amend.

Many Demo­crats in Con­gress have com­plained about vari­ous parts of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s push for trade deals, from the dif­fi­culty ac­cess­ing ne­go­ti­at­ing doc­u­ments, to con­cerns that the trade deal will lead to lost jobs and lower wages. Pro­gress­ive fa­vor­ite Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren has warned that the TPP could lead to weak­en­ing of labor and en­vir­on­ment­al stand­ards in the U.S.

“If you were watch­ing MS­N­BC and all this stuff, and you’re think­ing, ‘Oh, man, I love Obama but what’s go­ing on here?’” the pres­id­ent joked, try­ing to re­frame the deal as part of his push for what he calls “middle-class eco­nom­ics,” which he said was “the idea that this coun­try does best when every­body gets their fair shot, every­body does their fair share, every­body plays by the same set of rules.”

Obama also called the deal “the most pro­gress­ive trade agree­ment in our his­tory,” adding that it has labor and en­vir­on­ment­al en­force­ments. Obama com­pared the lib­er­al com­plaints to the ru­mors of “death pan­els” dur­ing the Obama­care de­bate.

But the line was seen as a slap in the face to some pro­gress­ives.

“It’s shame­ful to see Pres­id­ent Obama com­pare Demo­crats who op­pose fast-track­ing the TPP through Con­gress to Sarah Pal­in and the de­lu­sion­al ‘death pan­els’ rhet­or­ic,” said Charles Cham­ber­lain, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Demo­cracy for Amer­ica, in a state­ment. “Frankly, it’s be­neath this pres­id­ent to re­sort to such name-call­ing.”

The speech is the latest ef­fort in the Obama team’s hard sell to pro­gress­ives. A group of former Obama cam­paign of­fi­cials have also star­ted a pro-TPP group called the Pro­gress­ive Co­ali­tion for Amer­ic­an Jobs. On Fri­day, George Zor­nick of The Na­tion tweeted that Obama joined a press call with Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez on Fri­day and cri­ti­cized politi­cians who “send emails out to their fun­drais­ing base that they’re work­ing to stop a secret deal”—a not-so-subtle shot at War­ren.

More re­cently, Or­gan­iz­ing for Ac­tion sent out an email about TPA that Demo­crat­ic Un­der­ground pos­ted try­ing to ex­plain the im­port­ance of the le­gis­la­tion. The email also ar­gued that the term “fast track” for TPA was a mis­nomer be­cause TPA would have to go through Con­gress like any oth­er bill.

But pro­gress­ives use the term for TPA not be­cause the ac­tu­al TPA bill would be fast-tracked, but rather be­cause it would en­able trade bills to be sub­ject only to a vote without the abil­ity to amend, as War­ren wrote in a post on her web­site Thursday.

At the same time, pro­gress­ive groups are in­creas­ing their op­pos­i­tion to the trade deal.

“Our strategy is to make it clear to any­one in the Demo­crat­ic Party that this is a fun­da­ment­al threshold is­sue for claim­ing to sup­port the pro­gress­ive base,” Ben Wik­ler, Wash­ing­ton dir­ect­or for Mo­ve­On.org, told Na­tion­al Journ­al be­fore the speech.

Oth­er groups are keep­ing their eye on the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Mur­shed Za­heed, deputy polit­ic­al dir­ect­or at Credo, said his or­gan­iz­a­tion has worked to rally its sup­port­ers to en­cour­age Hil­lary Clin­ton to op­pose TPA and TPP.

“If Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton says fast-track is a bad idea for all the ways we’ve been say­ing, it would em­bolden all of the Demo­crats and it would provide huge mo­mentum,” Za­heed told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “If they be­lieve their talk and mean what they’re say­ing, this is the first pass-fail test.”

Za­heed said that des­pite the fact that Clin­ton pre­vi­ously praised the TPP while sec­ret­ary of State, op­pos­ing the deal would have a real im­pact and would be taken in good faith.

Ready for War­ren, which is push­ing for a War­ren pres­id­en­tial can­did­acy, is try­ing to make the sen­at­or’s op­pos­i­tion a bench­mark for oth­er can­did­ates.

“Ready for War­ren is ur­ging all 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, in­clud­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton, to join Eliza­beth War­ren’s call to make the TPP deal pub­lic,” said cam­paign man­ager Erica Sagrans in a state­ment.

As Con­gress as a whole will likely be­gin vot­ing on TPA—Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell told re­port­ers he wants to pass it dur­ing the cur­rent work peri­od be­fore Me­mori­al Day—the ad­min­is­tra­tion and its al­lies will likely keep push­ing for a trade deal it sees as one of the only pos­sible le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ments of its fi­nal years. But pro­gress­ive groups hope to use it as the first real lit­mus test for the Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign and the fledgling Demo­crat­ic primary race.

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