It’s possible that no president in the post-1945 era has traveled so far between his campaign rhetoric on trade and his presidential rhetoric on trade than Barack Obama. He’s gone from early 2007/8 promises to renegotiate NAFTA to promoting the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and bashing the congressional Democrats opposing it.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has made its substantive support for TPP rather clear, but that’s not the point of this post. Rather, Peter Baker’s excellent New York Times story of Obama’s speech at Nike headquarters contained some interesting paragraphs:
The clash underscored the president’s remove from his own party on this issue and echoed similar difficulties other presidents have had with allies late in their terms. In May 2007, at the same point in his presidency down to the month, George W. Bush gave a speech that was strikingly similar in its tone and frustration in which he condemned fellow Republicans opposing his efforts to overhaul the immigration system. In the end, Mr. Bush’s alliance with the opposition Democrats collapsed.
Mr. Bush was significantly weaker with Republicans than Mr. Obama is with Democrats, according to polls, but the similarity suggests the cycle of history in which presidents at this stage are more willing to challenge their party orthodoxy even as their party feels freer to abandon them on points of ideology, principle and political calculation. Even Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as secretary of state was part of the administration when trade negotiations began, is now hedging support as she runs for the presidency.
Indeed, as Obama has indicated repeatedly this year, he has no more campaigns to run. He’s pushing TPP because, six years into his presidency, he thinks it’s the right policy — much like Bush did on immigration reform.
This also seems to come through in Matt Bai’s long Yahoo story on Obama and TPP — particularly this paragraph:
[L]ike a marriage in which the spouses pretend to be happier than they really are, Obama’s polite alliance with the populist left appears to be suddenly crumbling under the weight of free trade. The more Warren and Senate colleagues like Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown attack the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, joined by big unions and environmental groups, the more liberated Obama seems to feel in portraying them as reckless and backward-looking, much as Clinton might have done. He evidences none of the self-doubt or conflicted loyalty that seemed plain when they criticized him for being too cautious on Wall Street reform or health care.
Obama’s decision to push back against the base of his own party on trade stands in sharp contrast to how the GOP presidential potentials campaigned over the weekend in South Carolina:
Republican presidential contenders came to South Carolina on Saturday and launched a fresh round of attacks on President Barack Obama’s handling of world affairs, promising a muscular foreign policy to voters in a state where many families and businesses have ties to the military.
“We need a president who is going to back away from that deal in Iran,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, referring to the outline of an agreement the Obama administration reached to limit Iran’s nuclear policy. The deal has been criticized by Israel and most Republicans.
“We need a president who will affirm that Israel is our ally and start acting like it,” said Mr. Walker, who left for a trip to Israel after speaking at the event.
These weren’t even the most “out there” statement on foreign policy, as Philip Rucker noted in his Washington Post coverage on the same event:
Ted Cruz bluntly remarked that a police officer who killed two gunmen who were likely inspired by the Islamic State helped them to “meet their virgins.” Bobby Jindal quipped that gun control means “hitting your target.” Marco Rubio quoted the violent action film “Taken” to describe his plan for defeating radical Islam.
You read that last sentence correctly:
Campaigning is very different from governing, so it is a little unfair to compare Obama’s seventh-year presidential rhetoric with the GOP candidates’ language when serving up red meat to the base. Still, assuming that
Dylan Byers is jumping to conclusions the GOP nominee will win in 2016, the political scientist and the American in me are at war over what will happen come January 2017.
The political scientist in me is going to be fascinated to watch whichever hawkish GOP politician wins grapple with the fact that his campaign rhetoric will not translate well at all into actual foreign policy. At least 85 percent of American foreign policy does not change from president to president, and the presidents who do try to change more than that eventually discover the pitfalls of that approach. Eventually President Walker/Rubio/Bush/Carson/Huckabee will disagree with an Israeli prime minister, much like George W. Bush did from time to time in his second term. Just as Obama has learned that getting out of the Middle East is not that easy, a Republican president in 2017 is going to learn that defeating radical jihadists is not as easy as quoting movie dialogue or saying “Reagan!” five times in front of the mirror.
The American in me is going to be appalled by this learning process, however, because it can take a while. As an enthusiast for further openness to the global economy, it is worth noting calmly that it took Obama SEVEN FRIGGIN’ YEARS to finally offer full-throated support for his bipartisan trade agenda. Who knows how long it will take the next Republican president to return from Bumper Sticker World to actual governing. And whichever Republican wins in 2016, it’s going to be a long and painful learning curve for them on foreign policy.