President Obama has never fashioned himself to be a blue-collar politician. He’s never been the type to engage in the glad-handing, ego stroking, or even arm-twisting, so often greases the wheels of Washington votes. Members of both parties have labeled him “remote,” “frosty,” “distant,” and only willing to engage in “perfunctory” relationships. As Scott Wilson reported for The Washington Post in 2011:
Where Clinton worked a room until he met everyone, Obama prefers to shake a few hands, offer brief remarks and head home to spend the night in the residence, so he can have breakfast with his girls the next morning and send them off to school. That may be good for his mental health, but it’s a challenge for those in the reelection campaign assigned to manage the whims of big donors. . .
Where Obama spends minutes with donors, Clinton allowed some to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. And Clinton, of course, had the Friends of Bill, who helped him out of trouble (and also got him into it). Obama rarely uses the trappings of his office or his status to make new political allies, whether it’s an evening phone call to a big donor or a thank you to a legislator who casts a tough vote.
Instead, Obama was consumed by the idealistic notion that good ideas always win out, and by the hubris of believing that he always had good ideas. The cult of personality that served him so well during the campaigns came unglued in the face of Washington realities. Speeches, better classified as lectures, wore increasingly thin in his own caucus, and ultimately his power waned.
That dramatic fall from grace—from the party’s all-powerful force, to a diminished, lame-duck—reached its nadir on Friday, when his personal pitch for his trade agenda was soundly defeated by Democratic defections.
One piece of the package, Trade Promotion Authority, which allows the president to submit trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no opportunity for amendments, passed narrowly in the House. But the bill was paired with Trade Adjustment Assistance, which provide cash assistance and reemployment services to workers who claim to lose their jobs because of increased imports, failed by a 302-126 vote, with a meager 40 Democrats in support. Because the two pieces were passed together in the Senate, neither piece will yet head to the president’s desk for sign off.
“[A] president who has long kept Congress at arm’s length may have paid a price,” the New York Times immediately reported.
The president seemed to realize too late that debating with Democrats over the merits of trade by way of press statements wasn’t winning him any supporters. In a too-little, too-late effort to change course, he made his first visit to the Democratic caucus in two years to plead with Democrats for their support. James Arkin reports for RealClearPolitics:
Democrats in that meeting described Obama’s message as “passionate” and “powerful.” They said his pitch for the worker bill was for them to “play it straight” and not vote against something they support just as a way to defeat something they oppose. Ultimately, that push proved unsuccessful, and may have even hardened the stance of those opposed to the fast-track deal.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, one of those opponents, said Obama was attempting to “guilt” members and “impugn their integrity.”
“There were a number of us who were insulted by the approach,” said the Oregon Democrat (pictured). “… He says you’re not playing it straight. That’s questioning someone’s integrity. Because we are legislators, it’s the only legislative tool we have to stop something that is otherwise inevitable.”
Word quickly spread amongst members of both parties that the meeting had not produced its intended effect.
“Allegedly, the president went and spoke to the Democrats, but what you heard on the floor was that he preached at them and wasn’t even open to questions afterward,” Sanford said. “It is a reminder of the way in which hubris is devastating in any walk of life.”
But the biggest dagger appeared to be Nancy Pelosi’s last-minute decision to buck the president and vote against Trade Assistance Authority. The Washington Post reported that vote came despite the fact that she “personally negotiated the precise fixes to the TAA bill with House Speaker John Boehner, who then set up the series of votes to take place exactly as she had asked.”
It’s not back to the drawing board for President Obama, who must quickly find a way to persuade nearly 100 Democrats to support trade assistance, and keep the hopes of negotiating a legacy-building trade deal alive.
“It’s up to the president if he’s going to get this thing over the finish line,” Majority Whip Steve Scalise said after the vote. “We’ve passed the component that’s been the Republican lift, and that’s getting TPA done. We did it with a strong vote on our side and we made it clear we’re not just going to shut this thing down because the president can’t deliver on his side.”
But until Democrats can set aside their intra-party squabbling and begin trusting their president again it will be tough to do much of anything on trade. And unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. After all, it takes a lot of back slapping and hand shaking to make up for six years of neglect.