House Democrats on Friday delivered a stinging blow to trade legislation, one of President Obama’s top priorities, a rebuke made harsher by the fact that Obama himself visited Capitol Hill to personally lobby members of his own party, and to ask for their votes as a personal favor.
The defeat demonstrates a Democratic Party that has evolved on trade, and one in which labor maintains an alluring hold. But in addition, Democrats’ defiance is an expression of years of frustration Capitol Hill Democrats feel at a president for whom they have repeatedly risked their own political careers.
Obama’s hard sell on Trade Promotion Authority legislation included inviting members of Congress to fly on Air Force One, lavishing them with attention from Cabinet officials, and previously undisclosed private meetings in the Oval Office – in other words, the leveraging of the trappings of the most powerful office in the world.
But that Obama himself would take advantage of such ordinary gestures has occasioned remarks among Democrats, who have grown used to being ignored, or feeling slighted, by their own president.
Virtually every Democratic member has a story, often told ruefully, of their dealings with the White House, variations on recurring themes: Two years ago, when Obama met with House Democrats in the Capitol Visitors Center, he pointed out the White House official in charge of relations with House Democrats. Two senior members leaned into each other, each wondering whether the other had ever heard of the heretofore invisible liaison.
A common parlor game among some House Democrats is to count the number of times they were invited to the White House for a social event during President George W. Bush’s tenure and during President Obama’s tenure; the Bush count is always higher.
And only a handful of members have been appointed to administration positions after losing their jobs in Congress, despite the fact that so many Democrats lost their posts after backing Obama’s agenda in 2010 and 2014.
Obama supporters point out he has worked hard to raise money for Democrats. The president routinely lent his name to party committees for fundraising pitches, and he appeared at more than a dozen fundraising events each for the Democratic National Committee and its House and Senate sister committees.
Still, Democrats on Capitol Hill are frustrated. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who served as speaker during Obama’s first two years, routinely felt the White House ignored her chamber in favor of dealing with the Senate. Last year, in an Oval Office meeting, Obama cut off Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid when Reid tried to get Obama to push Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Observers in Washington have long criticized Obama for his lack of outreach to House and Senate Republicans. The White House claims, not incorrectly, that even constant engagement with a party so vehemently opposed to Obama’s agenda wouldn’t do much good.
But when he needed his own party behind him, on an issue Obama has made a centerpiece of what he calls the fourth quarter of his presidency, the disconnect between Obama and members of his own party proved too much to overcome – even through a personal plea.