Hillary Clinton owes Harry Reid a solid. Why? Non-college-educated whites. They’re both the promise of the widely expected Clinton presidential bid and its potential pitfall. And if Reid continues to stand in the way of the Obama Administration’s trade agenda, it would help Clinton hold on to them.
Clinton’s image among non-college-educated whites hangs on the economic legacy of her husband’s presidency, and sooner or later her opponents will try to spoil that image by making NAFTA a dominant symbol of that legacy—assuming, of course, that she runs. To fend it off, Clinton will to need to offer a symbol of her own: NASDAQ. Personal attacks may be worn out, and Benghazi may not have two more years of juice in it, but the shifting economic ground could leave her vulnerable to a populist message from both the left and the right. And the Obama Administration could be inadvertently setting the trap for her.
In his State of the Union, Obama called for fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive free-trade agreement that represents an extension of the policies embodied in the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, championed and signed by Bill Clinton.
The further TPP negotiations progress, and the closer it comes to a vote in Congress, the more it will become the object of widespread public attention. The latest round of TPP talks commenced in Singapore on February 17. Meanwhile, there’s another treaty on the horizon: Next month, negotiators will hold the fourth round of talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would create a US-EU trade bloc and could be finalized by the end of the year. All this could open up a wide-ranging cross-partisan debate on free trade, much like the one we’ve seen on surveillance. Such a debate would threaten to put working-class whites’ perceptions of the Clinton economic legacy up for grabs. Right now, that legacy is of shared prosperity during economic boom times, symbolized by the tech-heavy NASDAQ, which grew by a factor of seven between Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 and its Clinton-era peak in 2000.