With 18 still months remaining in his second term, President Obama is slipping dangerously close to lame duck status and faces the prospect of seeing the heart of his agenda torn to shreds.
Republicans recently stymied his immigration reform executive orders – shielding millions of illegal immigrants and their children from deportation – by challenging them in federal court. In just a matter of days, the Supreme Court could strike down a central feature of Obama’s Affordable Care Act that provides government subsidies to about 6 million Americans who have purchased their insurance on federal government-built exchanges.
Now Obama’s signature trade initiative giving him expanded authority and flexibility to complete negotiations on a 12-nation trade deal across the Pacific Rim is at risk of going down in flames after 144 Democrats abandoned him last Friday and voted to kill a key component of the legislation that would provide job training and aid to workers.
With so much riding on his reviving the so-called fast-track trade promotion authority, Obama spent part of Monday intensely conferring not with fellow Democrats, but with Republican House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner, a frequent critic of the president’s, and many other Republicans want the deal almost as badly as Obama does. The House apparently decided to postpone plans for a second vote today on the trade assistance measure and instead pass a rule that would allow them to revisit the whole controversy by July 30, according to The Washington Post.
One of the biggest ironies of the trade controversy is that two women who have been Obama’s biggest champions over the years – House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 – have abandoned Obama just when he needed them the most.
Pelosi ended months of studied neutrality on the trade issue Friday morning and urged her Democratic members to vote against a vital element of the overall trade package even after Obama traveled to Capitol Hill to make a personal plea to Democrats to support him in his hour of need. The minority Democrats’ were able to derail the trade bill after Boehner and other GOP leaders made a tactical decision to hold two votes on portions of the legislation, including the Trade Adjustment Assistance program and the fast-track legislation that would strengthen Obama’s hand at the bargaining table.
Meanwhile, Clinton, who as secretary of state during Obama’s first term helped craft and shepherd the massive Asia-Pacific trade deal, kept her silence on the controversy until she finally formally announced her campaign for president last Saturday in New York.
While few doubt that Clinton will wrap up the Democratic nomination next summer with the help of a huge campaign war chest and sprawling political network, she has been slipping in the polls recently, and will need a lot of enthusiastic support from liberal and progressive Democrats to lock up the nomination and move ahead with a fall campaign against the ultimate Republican nominee. The fast-track trade legislation is so unpopular among liberal Democrats and labor leaders that it had become a new Third Rail of Politics for Clinton – embrace it and you die.
With her few Democratic rivals – namely Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley -- chiding her for essentially running away from the trade issue, Clinton finally had no choice but to publicly take a stand over the weekend, beginning with appearances in Iowa following her formal announcement and later in New Hampshire. And what she had to say provided no solace to the president.
Democrats and labor leaders, she said, were justified in raising strong concerns about the direction of the Asian Rim trade negotiations, and urged Obama to use what she oddly characterized as the leverage of the House vote last Friday to extract a better deal from our Asian trade partners. “I will judge what’s in the final agreement, but I hope that it can be made better,” Clinton said during a news conference in Concord, N.H. yesterday.
The Washington Post noted that Clinton defended her role in steering the trade deal as part of the administration’s strategic “pivot to Asia,” which she strongly favored during her four years at the State Department. During her tenure at State, Clinton had championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade preferences deal as a crucial facet of that overall pivot, and in 2012 called the emerging trade accord the “gold standard of trade agreements.”
It’s almost a cliché of presidential politics that campaigning is mostly about the future – and how the candidates intend to change the course of history – and little about the past. Clinton not surprisingly has begun to put some distance between her and Obama’s policies.
As for liberal Democrats, the stakes couldn’t be higher in electing another Democrat to the White House. Future appointments to the Supreme Court, protection of long-standing social programs and the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy in the face of terrorist threats from abroad all hang in the balance.
Clinton is the future, Obama is the past. So for Democrats facing difficult choices on whether to cast their lot with a lame duck president or possibly the next Democrat in the Oval Office, it’s really no contest.
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