On Trade, President Obama Is All Alone

The Obama administration says it's confident that leaders in Congress will work out what it calls a "procedural snafu." But it seems to have accepted reality: exactly the opposite.

Hillary Clinton dissed him. Nancy Pelosi subverted him. Now, it's looking ever more unlikely that the White House will be able to muster support in the House for President Obama's trade agenda.

Behind the scenes, the intense push that brought Obama to Capitol Hill last week to lobby House Democrats has cooled. And with the legislative math adding up to a sum not in the White House's favor—roughly 75 of the Democrats who voted no on Trade Adjustment Assistance need to change their tune for the bill to pass—it has an uphill, if not impossible, climb.

That's not the public message, of course. Despite standing alone on trade, the White House says it is still confident in Congress' ability to pass TAA—which more than 300 Democrats and Republicans voted down Friday, but which remains the key to getting fast-track trade legislation, or Trade Promotion Authority, through Congress.

The White House's public optimism started shortly after the House roundly shot down a crucial element of the president's trade agenda. At his Friday afternoon briefing, just after the key vote, press secretary Josh Earnest greeted reporters with a lighthearted smile, encouraging the press corps to "cheer up" and asserting that he was in good cheer because the House passed the so-called fast-track bill after rejecting the TAA measure. Obama came out with an upbeat statement highlighting that Congress had passed a bill giving him and his successors fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals, and downplaying the disastrous TAA vote.

Monday, Earnest reiterated the White House's line from Friday, blaming the legislative upset on a "procedural snafu." But he was decidedly less chipper.

"The president and the rest of us here at the White House continue to be confident that there is strong bipartisan support for this approach," he told reporters. "We just have to figure out how to untangle the legislative snafu in the House."

To figure out the legislative obstructions to passing fast-track authority, Earnest said the White House will certainly be "engaged" with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. While senior administration officials had been in conversation with lawmakers this weekend to try to turn the trade tide, he said, he specified only that Obama had a call in to House Speaker John Boehner and that they were expected to talk Monday.

But the president hasn't talked with Minority Leader Pelosi since she came out against both bills on Friday, Earnest said. (White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spoke to her Monday.) The slowdown in lobbying came after last week's frenzy that featured Obama's visit to the congressional baseball game Thursday night and a session with House Democrats on Capitol Hill Friday morning.

It doesn't help that in Hillary Clinton's first detailed comments on the trade deal as a 2016 contender, she criticized Obama's approach, aligning herself with Pelosi in a campaign rally in Iowa Sunday.

"The president should listen to and work with his allies in Congress, starting with Nancy Pelosi, who have expressed their concerns about the impact that a weak agreement would have on our workers to make sure we get the best, strongest deal possible," Clinton said.

Responding to Clinton's comments Monday, Earnest said, "I think what Secretary Clinton articulated over the weekend is a view that she is neither reflexively in favor of trade agreements nor reflexively against them."