President Obama was in rare form this week schmoozing members of Congress.
In an effort to get the House to pass a bill giving him greater authority to negotiate trade deals, a president who has famously kept Congress at arm’s length was suddenly on a charm offensive worthy of Lyndon Johnson.
On Thursday, he made a surprise appearance at the Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park, hanging out with lawmakers and waving at fans in the crowd in the sticky summer heat. The next morning, he stopped by Capitol Hill to rally Democrats at a meeting ahead of the vote. And behind the scenes, Obama and his team were meeting with lawmakers and making personal phone calls.
But Obama’s glad-handing left him empty handed.
The House voted 302-126 Friday to reject trade adjustment authority, which is meant to counter any harm that increased imports have on American workers. Trade adjustment authority usually boasts the support of Democrats—it’s a bit of a government handout—but progressives urged their fellow Dems to reject the measure in an effort to slow down the related Obama’s “fast-track” measure, or trade promotion authority.
“Its defeat,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, “is the only way we will be able to slow down fast track.”
At the closed-door meeting on the Hill, Obama urged Democrats to “play it straight” on the day’s votes. Don’t vote against trade adjustment authority just because you don’t want the fast track deal to pass, he pleaded. It didn’t work.
It’s a well-known fact that President Obama isn’t a schmoozer, a criticism that he has dismissed, both seriously and jokingly. “‘Why don’t get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask,” Obama cracked at the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”
Members have long argued that if the President were to reach out more, he could gain more traction during hard-wrought fights on Capitol Hill. Friday’s votes gave some weight to that argument. Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar said after Friday’s meeting there was a feeling among some members that Obama had waited until the last minute to try to sway votes. “I wish there would have been much better outreach by them,” he said.
Still, the vote on trade isn’t dead. By this time next week, the bill may have passed and the wounds from Friday’s beating may be healed.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday the President would continue reaching out to members to ensure the bill gets passed, while Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy signaled that the battle wasn’t yet finished. In a statement released Friday, Obama urged Representatives to vote for TAA on behalf of “about 100,000 workers and their communities” who would be hurt by Congressional inaction.
That means Obama is likely to keep schmoozing Congress. But if he wants his trade effort to succeed, he’ll need to get better at it, and soon.
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