On a conference call with a small group of reporters, President Obama significantly intensified his criticism of Elizabeth Warren and other opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, accusing them of being “dishonest” about the secrecy around the TPP process, suggesting they were playing to their “fundraising” lists, and arguing flatly that they were using “misinformation that stirs up the base but doesn’t serve them well.”
The push-back, directed largely at fellow Democrats, shows just how sharply the trade deal is dividing the party — a schism that could only intensify in the days ahead.
On the call, Obama ran through a number of Democratic and liberal objections to the deal. He responded to complaints about the “fast track” process, and the existence of an Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism that critics say could benefit major corporations at the expense of local governments.
“The one that gets on my nerves the most is the notion that this is a ‘secret’ deal,” Obama said. “Every single one of the critics who I hear saying, ‘this is a secret deal,’ or send out emails to their fundraising base saying they’re working to prevent this secret deal, can walk over today and read the text of the agreement. There’s nothing secret about it.”
That appeared to be a response to Elizabeth Warren’s recent fundraising letter claiming the administration’s promises can’t be trusted because “people like you can’t see the actual deal.” Obama allowed that some parts of the deal cannot currently be read, but argued that allowing those portions that have not yet been finalized to receive public exposure could undermine ongoing negotiations.
Obama added of the “fast track” provision that “there’s nothing fast about it.” He defended the current Wyden-Hatch fast track framework, which will soon get a full Senate vote, noting that Congress would examine the deal for three months before voting on it.
“When I keep on hearing people repeating this notion that it’s ‘secret,’ I gotta say, it’s dishonest,” Obama continued. “And it’s concerning when I see friends of mine resorting to these kinds of tactics.”
Warren’s fundraising letter was carefully worded to say that the deal is not available to the public before the fast track vote, not before the final vote. After the fast track vote it will be public.
Obama also pushed back on critics who point out that there’s nothing in TPP to combat currency manipulation by other countries to juice their exports, saying the administration is still committed to fighting it.
“We’re still working with members of Congress who are interested in the currency issue to potentially do something parallel to TPP,” he said. “But is not a good idea, and not plausible, for us to get an effective currency provision inside of TPP” that other countries and our own Treasury Department and Federal Reserve “could accept.”
What’s still unclear, though, is what happens if Congress and the administration can’t reach a deal on a separate currency provision; TPP would presumably move forward without one.
Obama also insisted that critics were wrong to see in TPP another NAFTA, arguing that TPP — unlike NAFTA — would compel other countries to adopt enforceable labor standards, leveling the playing field and opening them up to U.S. exports — creating more U.S. jobs.
“When I listen to criticism of this deal, what I primarily hear is criticism of NAFTA,” Obama said. “If you don’t like the fact that labor provisions aren’t enforceable right now, why wouldn’t you want a trade deal that makes labor provisions enforceable with some of the same countries we currently trade with?”
It’s still unclear how enforceable TPP’s labor standards would be. It remains to be seen, for instance, whether the deal would require a country like Vietnam to be fully compliant with its standards before participating in it; it’s also possible a future labor-unfriendly president could decline to enforce them.
“I’m not adverse to continuing to engage with members of Congress or unions or anybody else in the progressive community about how we can make sure this is the strongest agreement possible,” Obama concluded. “But what I am adverse to is a bunch of ad hominem attacks and misinformation that stirs up the base but ultimately doesn’t serve them well. And I’m going to be pushing back very hard if I keep on hearing that.”
Obama’s escalating rhetoric — and his intensifying disagreement with fellow Democrats right now — foreshadow a potentially more bruising fight to come.
UPDATE: To clarify, on the parts of the deal that I said above are not yet public, Obama actually said that there are “brackets” for parts of it that are not finalized, meaning that those parts don’t actually exist yet.