Trading Insults

by John Lawrence

There have been no shortages of forced comparisons of Barack Obama to presidents of the past – Lincoln and Kennedy, in particular – but the parallel which has always struck me has been to the Democrat who served in the White House exactly one century ago: Woodrow Wilson.

Like Obama, our 28th President had moved to his new “home state” as an adult, and came to the White House with a slim political resumé (Wilson had served less than two years as governor of New Jersey, his adopted state, before his 1912 election). Like Obama, Wilson conceived of himself, in the words of biographer John Morton Blum, as “an outside force in politics.” The two men share a skeptical attitude towards the Legislative Branch, which is all the more remarkable in Wilson’s case since his Ph.D. dissertation promoted Congressional Government, a concept he hastily abandoned once ensconced in the executive’s chair.

Both men were elected on the promise of peace and found themselves involved in a radically altering international tableau that dragged the country into a war they had opposed entering. Both shared careers as university-based intellectuals and endured criticisms for arrogance and detachment from the messiness of hand-on politics. Wilson, as Blum noted, strongly identified himself with “change, with challenging entrenched corporate interests who sought to dominate the political system, ” and with modernizing the Democratic Party. And like the current occupant of the White House, Wilson viewed America as having “a special moral as well as historical basis … a predestined obligation to bring constitutionalism to the world.”

Wilson famously (and contemptuously) castigated the Senate as a “little band of willful men” after a filibuster against his effort to arm merchant ships on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. That “little band” also scuttled Wilson’s high priority second term initiative, the League of Nations treaty following World War I. We can only imagine Obama’s subliminal assessment of a hostile Congress perennially determined to undo his major legislative achievements and resist his remaining policy goals.

Which brings us to the subject of Friday’s vote in the House on several trade bills that Obama has characterized as crucial to America’s international security and economic competitiveness, as well as his own legacy. There are interesting parallels between the vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance and Trade Promotion Authority last week with the 2008 effort to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) under President George W. Bush. In both cases, a President in the waning months of his presidency had to deal with a Congress in the hands of the other party, and encountered difficulties rallying his own party’s membership to support legislation he considered urgent. In the case of TARP, then-Minority Leader John Boehner, who had been an active participant in the development of the legislation to prevent the collapse of our economic system, faced a petulant, pre-Tea Party Republican Conference that had little taste for legislation promoted by their own President. Despite his pleas (and tears) on the floor on behalf of a bill he famously castigated as a necessary “crap sandwich,” Boehner was unable to produce the Republican votes needed to pass TARP, which failed on its first vote and then passed (after the Dow Jones average dropped 777 points) because the Democratic majority, under Speaker Pelosi, cranked up the necessary additional votes.

But there are a number of important differences between the TARP and TAA/TPA votes. Unlike TARP or the Bush stimulus, the Obama Administration has been negotiating the trade agreement without congressional involvement. The President has been calling upon House Democrats to sanction a complex plan, as yet not even completed, which they had had no role in designing and would have no ability to modify. Moreover, while key Republican constituencies – particularly the business community – strongly endorsed TARP as essential to the nation’s economic security, key Democratic constituencies vigorously oppose the current trade agreement. The AFL-CIO, the longtime supporter of TAA, which provides assistance to trade-displaced workers, was vigorous in its opposition to the extension of the program, which would have facilitated passage of the despised TPA bill.

Unable to persuade more than a couple dozen pro-trade Democrats to support the TPA, despite weeks of staff and personal exertions, Obama made a dubious visit to the Hill on Friday to call upon the members of the Democratic Caucus to reverse position and support the bills. His decision to cast the vote as one of support for him personally, and his unwillingness to take questions after his talk, compounded a sense by many Democrats that Obama was overly personalizing the vote and not responding to concerns about the merits of the issues at hand. The voluble Peter DeFazio pronounced himself “insulted” by the President’s tone, and it seems likely others found the lateness of the personalized message off-putting. Nor, it is likely, that those unhappy with the trade policy, many of whom feel Obama has neglected House Democrats in past campaigns, find much succor in the President’s promise to help them respond to criticism in next year’s election.

There will be, in years to come, a healthy amount written about the nature and effectiveness of Mr. Obama’s rapport with the Congress. Many who have served in the Administration are rankled by the allegations of aloofness or unwillingness to engage as exuberantly as past presidents supposedly have with legislators. If only Obama had invited more Members down for a beer or a movie; if only he had the Boehners over for dinner in the private quarters; if only he had held more frequent leadership meetings or adopted a more consultative relationship with key chairmen and ranking Members.

Maybe, but probably not. Obama is hardly the first President to be accused of a less than cuddly relationship with Congress. But frostiness or not, Democrats have generally loyally supported Obama initiatives about which many were half-hearted (the 2011 budget agreement) and Republican opposition to President Obama has little or nothing to do with the level of White House fraternizing. Many Republicans have gone to social events at the White House, eagerly sought autographs and photographs with the President, and then continued to excoriate him and his policies without surcease. And high-ranking White House aides certainly have been meeting with Democratic leaders and key committee members in recent weeks.

What cannot be doubted, however, is that many Members of both sides feel inadequately consulted by the President, and any White House needs to deal with perceptions as well as realities. There was no hesitation by Democrats, even highly vulnerable ones, when they were called upon by the President and Speaker Pelosi to cast votes on legislation they deeply cared about and had extensive hands in writing such as the 2009 stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. Many knew their votes could jeopardize the extended political careers they had assiduously planned, and many suffered defeat in large part because of those votes (which, incidentally, very few have said they regretted). Of course, that was all in the early glow of the Obama era, and perhaps Members thought the schmoozing and White House ice cream socials would come later.

But there was a different attitude towards the trade bills, not because Mr. Obama is in the 7th year of his presidency or even because he allegedly does not socialize enough with legislators. Democrats did not run embracing free trade agreements that would offend key constituencies, but they did run promising jobs, economic recovery and health care. When those bills came to the floor, they supported them, largely regardless of political consequences.

Moreover, the trade agreements run counter to the longstanding trend of Congress, since the mid-1970s, to look skeptically on presidential initiatives that involve legislative deference to the Executive Branch, even in the area of international affairs. When you mix the periodic need for an re-assertion of congressional equity with a politically unpopular trade policy, as well as an absence of involvement in the development of the policy itself, one can hardly be surprised at the lack of enthusiasm. No clinking of beer steins at the White House was going to impact that decision.

Much has been written about the role of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had declined to commit herself on the trade bills over the past several months. Doubtless, she instructed the White House to do what she always tells people seeking her assistance: go get the votes. She can help tweak a tight outcome, but she cannot move mountainous opposition. In the end, the President was unable to persuade Members with either substantive or personal entreaties. No one should have been surprised that Leader Pelosi stuck with the vast majority of her Members and voted “no.” Her vote was not a repudiation of the President, but an act of solidarity with the Caucus that elects her.

Suggestions that Pelosi somehow failed to deliver the votes as she did in the case of TARP or ACA miss the point: those were bills Democrats had fashioned and were invested in seeing enacted. Pelosi spared no effort to ensure passage of such Democratic priorities, and proved herself willing to take unremitting abuse from Republicans, the press and even some of her own obdurate Members to achieve her (and the President’s) goals. But Democrats have no such allegiance to enactment of trade legislation, and absent a more compelling case from the White House or a better vote count, Pelosi had little reason to urge Members to act against their deep-seated beliefs and political self-interest.

Some assert that it was cynical of Democrats, who have long supported the trade assistance program, to vote it down because they knew its passage would ease the way for the TPA, which they opposed. But their opposition was surely no more cynical than was the strategy to link the two votes in the first place, which was designed to make it all that much more difficult for Democrats to oppose TPA. What the White House and House Republicans missed was the willingness of TAA’s perennial supporters both on and off the floor to allow the program to disintegrate rather than extend it in order to ease passage of the hated trade authority bill. It may be difficult to explain the complex floor maneuvers that sunk TAA and TPA on Friday, but whatever it was, it was certainly not the “procedural snafu” described by Obama press secretary Josh Earnest.

However, my guess is that, like Mark Twain’s passing, the death of TPA is greatly exaggerated. Speaker Boehner moved to reconsider the TAA vote and has announced a revote as early as next week. TPA proponents also have the option, although it may be a thin one, to figure a way to move the House-passed clean TPA bill through the Senate, perhaps by offering senators a separate TAA vote that is not linked to TPA. Creative parliamentary minds are surely at work here; it is difficult to see the underlying bill, having been approved by both houses, wither and die because no one could figure out how to structure a rule or floor procedure to achieve the desired outcome. That is how health care ultimately became law: smart strategists figured out how to end-run the implacable opponents.

Even Pelosi hinted on Friday that a defeat of TAA could set in motion forces that might yield a better trade bill down the road, which does not sound like the funeral oration over a moribund bill. Whether an enactable trade bill can be salvaged from the wreckage remains to be seen. But if it is to enjoy greater Democratic support in an era of concern about grotesque wealth disparity, the trade bill will have to reflect not only the interests of the business community, but a greater resemblance to the same goals embodied by Woodrow Wilson’s New Nationalism a century ago, a national policy that “promote[s] the welfare of those groups which ha[ve] not as yet shared adequately in the richness of national life.”