Obama Changes Tone in Fight with Liberal Trade Critics

The president's efforts to dismiss the concerns of Senator Elizabeth Warren has only helped bolster his opposition on the left.

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US President Barack Obama addresses youth and law enforcement from the Camden community in Camden, New Jersey, on May 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Photographer: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

For the past several weeks, President Barack Obama's response to liberal critics of his trade agenda has been that they're simply misinformed. Or, as he's put it, they are “wrong,” “don’t know what they’re talking about,” “dishonest,” and “making this stuff up.” During an interview with Yahoo last week, Obama said his chief critic, Senator Elizabeth Warren, was “a politician like everybody else” and her “arguments don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny.” 

The Senate agreed late last week to advance fast-track legislation for Obama's trade bills, and Republicans are confident they have enough votes to pass it. But when it comes to convincing liberals that Warren is wrong about trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama's claim that his opponents are “wrong” is falling flat. 

On Monday, Warren released a 15-page report detailing how the U.S. has failed to enforce the labor protections in its recent trade deals, despite nearly identical assurances from Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. 

“Again and again, proponents of free trade agreements claim that this time, a new trade agreement has strong and meaningful protections; again and again, those protections prove unable to stop the worst abuses,” the report says, citing data from the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Labor. 

Warren has also argued that the bill before Congress to grant the president fast-track authority for his trade bills could make it easier for future presidents to weaken U.S. financial regulations. Last week, Obama called that claim “pure speculation” and something he'd have to be “pretty stupid” to agree to, but constitutional scholars and legal experts agree it is possible. If anything, Warren's strategy has continued to strengthen the opposition to the agreement on the left.  

“[T]he administration—and the president himself—don’t help their position by being dismissive of the complaints and lecturing the critics (Elizabeth Warren in particular) about how they just have no idea what they’re talking about,” Paul Krugman wrote in Sunday's New York Times. “That would not be a smart strategy even if the administration had its facts completely straight—and it doesn’t.”

Obama might already be heading toward less dismissive rhetoric. During a press conference on late last week, Obama said that he wanted to keep making his case to the senators who voted against advancing the TPP bill last Tuesday and “provide them the information they need to feel confident” that this deal is better than past ones. He didn’t say anyone was making anything up, but said that he believed the deal was good based on his own interpretation of the facts. He also took a moment to blamed the all the talk of tension between himself and Warren on the media. 

“The issue with respect to myself and Elizabeth has never been personal,” Obama said. “I think it’s fun for the press to see if we can poke around at it when you see two close allies who have a disagreement on a policy issue.”

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