President Obama delivers remarks on trade on May 8, 2015, at Nike’s corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Opinion writer

Let’s suppose you are trying to bring a friend around to your point of view.

Would you tell her she’s emotional, illogical, outdated and not very smart? Would you complain that he’s being dishonest, fabricating falsehoods and denying reality with his knee-jerk response?

Such a method of a persuasion is likelier to get you a black eye than a convert. Yet this is how President Obama treats his fellow Democrats on trade — and why he’s in danger of losing.

The vast majority of lawmakers in his own party oppose him on trade legislation. Yet rather than accept that they have a legitimate beef, he shows public contempt for them — as he did in an interview with Matt Bai of Yahoo News released over the weekend.

“Their arguments are based on fears, or they’re fighting NAFTA, the trade deal that was passed 25 years ago — or 20 years ago,” he said with a laugh. Sighing, he added, “I understand the emotions behind it, but when you break down the logic of their arguments, I’ve got to say that there’s not much there there.”

While visiting Nike headquarters in Oregon, President Obama outlined the "different kind of trade deal" he hopes to achieve through the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. (WhiteHouse.gov)

He said one of his Democratic critics’ arguments “doesn’t make any sense,” another is “pure speculation,” and others are “made up” or unrealistic. “There’s no logic that I think a progressive should embrace that would make you opposed to this deal,” he said, accusing those who disagree of taking the “not smart” position of trying to “ignore the fact that a global economy is here to stay” and of acting to “shrink the overall economic pie just because we’re mad about some things that have happened in the past.”

The rhetoric suggests that Obama has given up trying to persuade his fellow Democrats to join him in supporting “fast track” approval of the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and that he’s lashing out at them in anger. The fast-track legislation faces its first test Tuesday with a vote in the Senate, and it looks to be a squeaker. Even if the free-traders get the required 60 votes, supporters won’t have momentum going into a vote in the House, where the legislation faces a tougher slog.

If Obama loses on trade, blame should go to the twin pillars of detachment that have underpinned his presidency: insularity and secrecy.

The president’s long-standing disdain for his former colleagues on Capitol Hill now haunts him. After years of reluctance to lobby Congress, the White House made a big push for the trade legislation but found little goodwill among Democrats. And the push already seems to have exhausted Obama. After his contemptuous remarks about Democratic critics on trade, Obama went to play golf on Saturday — not with lawmakers but with old friends and staffers.

Obama is also being undermined by his administration’s allergy to disclosure and its zeal for confidentiality. As if by way of reminder, CIA leaker Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced Monday, the latest victim of an administration crackdown on leakers and whistleblowers that has led it to use the Espionage Act more than all previous administrations combined. On the trade issue, this has meant keeping the Trans-Pacific details classified — lawmakers must visit a secure facility to read the text — so that the public can’t learn details until after Congress passes fast-track trade authority denying lawmakers power to amend the deal.

The secrecy makes it appear Obama is hiding something. “If the president is so confident it’s a good deal, he should declassify the text and let people see it before asking Congress to tie its hands on fixing it,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told my colleague Greg Sargent.

Instead of coming clean, Obama prefers to inform fellow Democrats that he’s the smartest guy in the room. “Some folks are just opposed to trade deals out of principle, a reflexive principle,” Obama told an audience at Nike headquarters in Oregon on Friday. “If you’re opposed to these smart, progressive trade deals, then that means you must be satisfied with the status quo,” he added, also suggesting critics are stuck in the 1993 NAFTA fight, when “I was just getting out of law school.”

Then, with Bai, he mocked those who would “deal with climate change by shutting down global trade,” and he derided Warren as “a politician like everybody else” and one who is “absolutely wrong.” Warren’s arguments “don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny,” he said.

But her arguments can’t be given the test of fact, because Obama won’t let his trade pact face the test of scrutiny. His disregard for congressional allies is as self-defeating as his dismissal of the public’s right to know.

Twitter: @Milbank

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