Friday's trade vote in the House was more than just an embarrassment for President Obama, more than just a setback for his trade agenda, and more than just a message to the rest of the world that he is a president who is having trouble delivering on a key portion of his foreign policy. It is all that.
But it also is a sad validation of the most enduring criticism of his presidency: Even after six years, five months, and 23 days in office, he still hasn't mastered how to deal with Congress.
Almost nothing annoys Obama loyalists more than the recurring criticism of how only the third sitting senator in American history to become president interacts with his former colleagues. To them, the critics are living in a different age, when schmoozing was king, and presidents drank bourbon and branch water and swapped tall tales with members of Congress after hours.
That will never be Obama's style. To the White House, the critics are mired in the last century and have missed the way partisanship has altered the dynamic along Pennsylvania Avenue. More immediately, the president's aides don't want to admit that what happened in the House on Friday was a lasting defeat and certainly don't see it as something to be blamed on their approach.
Shortly after the vote, press secretary Josh Earnest dismissed the lopsided defeat of trade assistance as "a procedural snafu" similar to the first vote on trade in the Senate. Earnest preferred instead to hail the fact that there were 219 votes for Trade Promotion Authority and that 28 of those 219 votes came from Democrats. "TPA has passed," he said. "That was supposed to be the hard one."
Earnest may turn out to be right. It is very possible that the House next week will have the votes for Trade Adjustment Assistance and that TPA could land on the president's desk. That would leave Friday's vote as a mere legislative hiccup. But even such a rebound will not assuage the hard feelings of so many House Democrats. Nor will it erase the memory of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi voting against the president only a few hours after he personally appealed to her.
At the heart of the discontent is the belief by many members of the House and the Senate that the president is unmindful of the most basic rule of executive-congressional relations: "Don't wait to call members until you need them." Nothing aggravates senators and House members more than being taken for granted by a president whom they never hear from except when there is a tough vote facing them. In their view, that is how Obama too often operates. So when the president tried a late flurry of personal activity, it looked both panicky and ineffective. Attending one inning of a congressional baseball game, as he did Thursday night, and trekking to Capitol Hill for a one-hour meeting, as he did on Friday, were too little and too late.
Earnest strongly disputed that, mocking the notion that anyone in the White House thought going to the baseball game would change votes. He said he would agree with the broader criticism only "if that were all the president did." Unknown to reporters, he said, the president held "dozens of conversations" with members on the TPA in recent months. And he insisted the president takes the concerns of members "much more seriously" than most people understand.
No one really accuses the president of not taking those concerns seriously. But there are members who believe that a president who can be enormously charming seemed to lose his touch when he sat down with members of the Democratic caucus on Friday.
According to reports from some Democrats, he made few converts and may even have lost votes by seeming to challenge the motivations of many Democrats and refusing to take any questions. Obama was a senator long enough to know that could be counterproductive.
This is not a setback that can be blamed on staff. While this has not been the case throughout his time in office, Obama currently has a highly regarded and effective head of congressional liaison in Katie Beirne Fallon. On an issue as high-profile as trade, and in a political environment that Earnest called "toxic," the closer has to be the president himself. He has until next week to persuade more than 80 Democrats in the House to flip their votes.
The stakes reach far beyond Capitol Hill. A defeat, said Matthew P. Goodman, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "would be catastrophic for the U.S. position in Asia" and would be "hugely damaging" to the president overseas. Jeremy Shapiro, a senior adviser in the State Department in Obama's first term, said Europe's leaders are also watching intently because a defeat here would doom any proposed broader trade deal with that continent. A loss, he said, "would be a disaster for the president's trade agenda and for his foreign policy agenda in the second term."
With stakes that high, it is not hyperbole to say the world is waiting to see if the president can rebound from Friday's stumble.