Are you a congressional Democrat who bucked organized labor and the progressive base of your party to support President Barack Obama’s trade agenda?
Then the White House may have a gift for you: Air Force One touching down in your hometown, where the president will hold a large rally and praise you for your hard work.
Thursday’s beneficiary was Representative Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who was a leading supporter in the House for a bill giving the president greater leeway to negotiate trade pacts. Obama engaged in an unusually personal lobbying campaign for the legislation, including hundreds of phone calls by him and his aides.
“Ron, me, we were talking about the middle class before it was cool,” Obama said on Thursday in Kind’s district. “Before it was trendy. Before the polls told you it was the right thing to talk about.”
The visit came just a day after Obama visited Nashville, Tennessee, home to Democrat Jim Cooper, a trade supporter who got to hitch a ride with the president.
The two trips this week came after recent policy victories for Obama, including wins at the Supreme Court as well as the trade legislation. The bill is key to clinching a free-trade pact with Pacific Rim countries, a top priority for Obama’s second term.
In the course of cajoling Congress to pass the measure, Obama placed about 160 phone calls to lawmakers, some after 10 p.m. New York time from his residence. His Cabinet secretaries and top aides made another 450 calls and participated in about 175 meetings, people familiar with the work said. They requested anonymity to describe internal White House strategy.
Administration officials say they hope the payoff comes in 2016, when the trade deal is submitted to Congress.
“This is not the end of the road,” Obama said at the White House on Monday when he signed the bill. “This is just one step in a long path.”
The effort required Obama to both romance Congress and at times apply pressure. Neither skill has been much in evidence in his presidency, as members of Congress in both parties have often complained of neglect by the White House.
After Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Republican chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, complained in March that Ron Wyden, the senior Democrat on his panel, was holding up the legislation, Obama met with the Oregon Democrat.
Six days later, Hatch’s and Wyden’s staffs agreed on a framework for the bill. The committee approved it a month afterward. Wyden helped wrangle Democratic votes for Obama.
Wyden’s thank-you arrived in May, when Air Force One touched down in Portland for a pro-trade rally at Nike Inc. headquarters, starring the president.
The legislation, called trade-promotion authority, allows Obama and his successor to negotiate agreements and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without the possibility of amendments or a Senate filibuster. With “fast-track” power in hand, Obama hopes to complete negotiations on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership this summer.
Equally as important to Obama’s trade agenda as the negotiating power may be the alliances he has built in winning it. At the advice of consultants including Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley, Obama’s former chiefs of staff, and Joshua Bolten, chief of staff to former President George W. Bush, the White House enlisted the Cabinet and top Obama aides to lobby Congress, according to one senior administration official.
The person asked not to be identified discussing internal strategy.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack targeted lawmakers from rural and farming communities. Those with many small businesses in their districts found themselves the focus of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said publicly he’d prefer the Asia-Pacific trade pact over a new aircraft carrier.
“The relationships that each Cabinet member has strengthened will be important,” Jeff Zients, the director of the National Economic Council, said in a phone interview. “We can continue our strategy of making sure every member and every constituent has access to information about how the agreement benefits American workers, benefits the environment, and benefits small businesses.”
Success isn’t certain. Delicate negotiations remain with U.S. trade partners, especially Japan, and concessions Obama may be forced to make to access foreign markets will create “winners and losers” among U.S. companies, said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.
“If there are more of the latter than the former, I don’t think anyone will help him,” Reinsch said. “The Republicans will be more open to supporting it, but it won’t be automatic.”
If all else fails, Obama can lean on flattery. In Nashville, his praise for Cooper was gushing.
“He’s willing to do courageous stuff even when it’s not popular; he is a gentleman, one of my favorite people,” the president said at a question-and-answer session at a local elementary school.
Thursday in Wisconsin, he credited Kind’s support with helping the country to add nearly 900,000 manufacturing jobs during Obama’s presidency.
“You’ve got a congressman who never forgets his La Crosse roots,” Obama said.