WASHINGTON – Let’s suppose you are trying to bring a friend around to your point of view.
Would you tell her she’s emotional, illogical, outdated and not very smart? Would you complain that he’s being dishonest, fabricating falsehoods and denying reality with his knee-jerk response?
Such a method of persuasion is likelier to get you a black eye than a convert. Yet this is how President Barack Obama treats his fellow Democrats on trade – and why he’s in danger of losing.
The vast majority of lawmakers in his own party oppose him on trade legislation; on Tuesday, Senate Democrats blocked consideration of legislation to give Obama “fast-track” negotiating authority.
Yet rather than accept that they have a legitimate beef, he shows public contempt for them – as he did in an interview with Matt Bai of Yahoo News released over the weekend.
“Their arguments are based on fears, or they’re fighting NAFTA, the trade deal that was passed 25 years ago – or 20 years ago,” he said with a laugh.
He said one of his Democratic critics’ arguments “doesn’t make any sense,” another is “pure speculation,” and others are “made up” or unrealistic. “There’s no logic that I think a progressive should embrace that would make you opposed to this deal,” he said, accusing those who disagree of taking the “not smart” position of trying to “ignore the fact that a global economy is here to stay.”
The rhetoric suggests Obama has given up trying to persuade Democrats to join him in supporting “fast-track” approval of the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and that he’s lashing out at them in anger. Without Democratic support, the fast-track legislation faces a tough slog on Capitol Hill, especially in the House.
If Obama loses on trade, blame should go to the twin pillars of detachment that have underpinned his presidency: insularity and secrecy.
The president’s long-standing disdain for his former colleagues on Capitol Hill now haunts him. After years of reluctance to lobby Congress, the White House made a big push for the trade legislation but found little goodwill among Democrats. And the push already seems to have exhausted Obama. After his contemptuous remarks about Democratic critics on trade, Obama went to play golf on Saturday – not with lawmakers but with old friends and staffers.
Obama is also being undermined by his administration’s allergy to disclosure and its zeal for confidentiality. On the trade issue, this has meant keeping the Trans-Pacific details classified – lawmakers must visit a secure facility to read the text – so that the public can’t learn details until after Congress passes fast-track trade authority denying lawmakers power to amend the deal.
The secrecy makes it appear Obama is hiding something. “If the president is so confident it’s a good deal, he should declassify the text and let people see it before asking Congress to tie its hands on fixing it,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told my colleague Greg Sargent.
Instead of coming clean, Obama prefers to inform fellow Democrats that he’s the smartest guy in the room.
“Some folks are just opposed to trade deals out of principle, a reflexive principle,” Obama told an audience at Nike headquarters in Oregon on Friday. “If you’re opposed to these smart, progressive trade deals, then that means you must be satisfied with the status quo,” he added, also suggesting critics are stuck in the 1993 NAFTA fight, when “I was just getting out of law school.”
Then, with Bai, he mocked those who would “deal with climate change by shutting down global trade,” and he derided Warren as “a politician like everybody else” and one who is “absolutely wrong.” Warren’s arguments “don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny,” he said.
But her arguments can’t be given the test of fact, because Obama won’t let his trade pact face the test of scrutiny. His disregard for congressional allies is as self-defeating as his dismissal of the public’s right to know.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.