Those who may have thought a fast track bill could be plopped down and rammed through a skeptical Democratic caucus — especially with its only Democratic sponsor, Senator Max Baucus, not sticking around to see it through — failed to account for history or for the consequences of the president’s refusal to do anything to soften the ground for trade legislation in Washington. If the trade agenda implodes, blame President Obama and nobody else. His failure to invest in a straightforward narrative to reassure doubters and explain trade’s enormous benefits has yielded commensurate dividends.
While he has encouraged his trade negotiators’ to bring home big “21st Century” trade deals, which include rules that penetrate more deeply into what was once considered domestic policy space, the president has never attempted to assuage concerns, correct misconceptions, or make an affirmative public case for why trade (or these new rules) are essential to the nation’s prosperity. That has left a vacuum gladly filled by organized, anti‐trade interests, who have spread rumors and preyed on the public’s worst fears.
During the past year, as domestic opposition to the Trans‐Pacific Partnership (TPP) was metastasizing, the administration issued nary a peep in rebuttal to allegations of imminent job losses, erosion of labor and product safety standards, environmental catastrophe, loss of internet freedoms, inaccessibility to medicines, threats to the food supply chain and other aspects of public health, or the acquiescence of policy making to multinational corporations. That silence lent credibility to claims that were mostly absurd, inspiring more opposition. The White House seems never to have anticipated the need to engage in domestic dialogue or negotiations that would require the president to not only stand up to his traditional allies on the Left, but to stand with congressional Republicans.