Barack Obama's Base Has Tuned Him Out

The president is not on the ballot, and on trade, the liberal grassroots is happy to remind everyone of that.

President Barack Obama arrives to speak about trade policy at Nike Headquarters on May 8, 2015 in Beaverton, Oregon. (National Journal)

The White House is trying to turn up the heat on wavering House Democrats so far unwilling to side with President Obama on the multination Pacific trade deal he is negotiating. Obama will appear on local TV stations Wednesday to pressure fence-sitters, and the White House has made clear he won't forget who helped the president in this time of need.

But his target audience has tuned him out.

Nothing in the president's second term has better demonstrated his lame-duck status than his uphill fight for Trade Promotion Authority, a political reality that is being effectively hammered home by his erstwhile allies in the progressive movement who are determined to beat him and are no longer concerned that they could weaken a fellow Democrat in the White House.

"Labor unions and progressives will be around for many election cycles to come. And President Obama won't be on the ballot anymore," is the pointed message of Adam Green, one of the most effective and influential progressive leaders in Washington. Green is cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), a 950,000-member organization that grew out of PCCC is one of several liberal groups that will hold what Green calls "a massive day of action" on the trade fight Wednesday, to include the release of 2 million signatures opposing TPA.

Robert Borosage, president of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, said the groups do not want Democrats in Congress to underestimate the impact of their vote here. "We want people to understand that this is not one of those free votes where you can make up your mind and there are no consequences," he told National Journal. "This is a vote where virtually the entire activist base of the Democratic Party is mobilized against this and against a president they respect and like, because they think this is a fundamental question for our country about the structure of our economy going forward.

Green is pushing the same message. "This impacts so many millions of jobs that this vote will not be forgotten. It will be around for years. There is arguably no bigger vote that will impact more American jobs than this [Trans-Pacific Partnership] fast-track vote."

Borosage, Green, and leaders of the AFL-CIO all say this could mean progressive opposition to incumbent Democrats in next year's primaries. Already, Rep. Ami Bera, a two-term congressman from a marginal district in Sacramento, California has been targeted. The California Labor Federation has called his support for Obama's TPA "a slap in the face to those who worked so hard to elect him." No primary opponent has surfaced yet, but Bera, without sufficient funds, easily could lose to a Republican.

The Campaign for America's Future has taken aim at the 13 Democrats who supported TPA in the Senate, putting out a flyer with "SHAMEFUL" in large red letters over their pictures and the lament that "these Democratic senators voted to shut out America's workers from the trade debate." At least one of those senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon, could face a primary challenge because of that vote.

"Democrats have been pretty coddled by their base," said Borosage, noting that Republican activists have been less swayed by arguments that they could cause a seat to flip to the opposition. "I think the base has to be increasingly assertive. Not on every vote, but on major questions, people have to face consequences. That doesn't mean we're going to go out and primary every senator. But I think one or two of these congresspeople are going to get primaried."

What is amazing is how irrelevant an incumbent president of the United States is to this debate at the grassroots.

Basically, the anti-trade coalition sees no reason to waste energy attacking a lame-duck president, whose mind is made up on this issue, who has been an ally in many past battles, and who could once again return to the good graces of the activists when this fight is concluded. They also feel a sense of liberation now that Obama can't run again. "Especially now that he is not running for reelection, there is no real necessity for having his back, particularly when he's on the wrong side of the majority of Americans," Green said.

The White House insists Obama will not fade quietly into the background. He will conduct interviews with TV stations from Dallas, El Paso, Seattle, Sacramento, and San Diego—all homes of pro-trade Democrats—on Wednesday. And press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama will have the back of any Democrats who face challenges because they supported him on trade.

"The president believes that he's got a strong case to make, and if it becomes necessary for the president to make that case in the context of a Democratic primary contest, the president's committed to those members of the House of Representatives that face that kind of pressure that the president will stand with them," Earnest said.

Earnest was less clear about what it means to stand with them, contending that it is not yet time to say if Obama will campaign in their districts. "I don't want to foreshadow any tactics right now," he said.

The press secretary warned against underestimating the clout of the president. "There's ample data to point you to that indicates the influence that the president has among Democratic voters all across the country," Earnest said. "And having the strong support of the most popular figure in Democratic politics for your reelection I think most Democrats are going to find beneficial to their congressional campaigns."

But make no mistake, while liberal and labor activists may not be doing what Obama wants, they are still paying attention—as witnessed when the president criticized a liberal icon, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, telling Yahoo's Matt Bai that "Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else" whose arguments on trade "don't stand the test of fact and scrutiny."

"People were outraged," recalled Green. "We actually had our highest number of people calling Congress against the TPP when it was done in reaction to the president attacking Elizabeth Warren in such a petty way. It was like, really? You're going to attack the one person willing to take on corporate power? ... He took this issue that could have otherwise been wonky and made it very personal. It was definitely counterproductive for him."

Borosage was more philosophical about the attack. "That was just hardball," he said. "Politics is not beanbag. You put the gloves on when you're in a fight. So I didn't hold that against the president. I just think his position is wrong."