The fight over Trade Promotion Authority was never about Barack Obama, despite the best efforts of the White House and many in the media to portray it as such. The president’s effort to obtain congressional consent to “fast track” a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which failed Friday amid a complex flurry of House votes, fell apart because of something that runs far deeper: frustration on the part of Americans with race-to-the-bottom trade policies as defined by the North American Free Trade Agreement and extended across ensuing agreements.
This is a reality that the president and his allies need to recognize as they revisit fast track and trade issues—not just in advance of an expected “revote” on a key measure Tuesday but in the weeks and months to come. America is moving beyond the point where a politics of partisanship or personality is sufficient to secure support for “free trade” policies that have not worked and that will not work.
The free-trade model that has been promoted for decades by Democratic and Republican presidents, along with Wall Street interests and multinational corporations, has failed American workers and communities—and millions of Americans who were part of the president’s winning coalitions in 2008 and in 2012 recognize this.
Like presidents before him, Obama sought fast-track authority in order to make it easier to engage in trade negotiations, in particular, and international relations, in general. His harshest critics suggested that he was selling out to the Wall Street interests that provided substantial support for his 2012 reelection campaign. The president argued that he merely wanted flexibility so that he could develop better deals than past presidents did. Whatever the calculus, Obama could not convince his fellow partisans to give him—and his successor—the authority he sought. Too many factory closings, too many unmet promises, had left no room for traditional appeals on the grounds of party loyalty or personal connections.
On the critical vote Friday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was a “no,” and in declaring her opposition she spoke the sentiments of most Democrats, saying, “Whatever the deal is with other countries, we want a better deal for America’s workers.”
It wasn’t that the Democrats wanted to deal Obama a defeat, as the vapid headlines suggested Friday afternoon. This wasn’t the personality contest that pundits so enjoy. Many of the “no” votes came from the president’s earliest and most sincere allies: House members such as Michigan’s John Conyers, Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, and California’s Barbara Lee. The issue was trade policy, and most Democrats in the House share the view of labor, farm, environmental, and human-rights groups that believe our trade policies must be radically altered.