On trade, Obama's most loyal allies are abandoning him

The Congressional Black Caucus has been among President Obama's strongest supporters. But trade deals bring back bad memories.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
President Barack Obama waits for his family before boarding Marine One upon their arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, June 6, 2015.

At the grocery store, at church, and at the local Lowe’s hardware store, people stop Rep. Marcia Fudge (D) of Ohio to tell her they support the president, but not the bill to give him one of the things he wants most: the authority to more easily negotiate the largest trade deal in United States history.

This is not the North American Free Trade Agreement, the president says. It includes enforceable labor, environmental, and human rights standards. It’s a job creator that will open new markets to the US. It will act as an economic and strategic counterbalance to China.

Perhaps. But Congresswoman Fudge's constituents don’t believe it. And so Fudge, who chaired the Congressional Black Caucus in 2014, is against President Obama's trade agenda.

For a high-priority issue that may come to an edge-of-your-seat vote as early as this week, every vote could matter. No House members are more loyal to Mr. Obama than the black caucus, which makes up about a quarter of House Democrats. That's why the president and top US officials are lobbying the group mightily on trade.

But for many members like Fudge, trade is in a category of its own. Even for a president who desperately needs them, on an issue he desperately wants, many of Obama's  most loyal foot soldiers are expected to abandon him. Partly, it's the NAFTA effect – the bad aftertaste from past trade deals and how they are perceived to have affected black Americans. But some members of the caucus say labor unions are forcing the issue, taking away whatever advantage Obama might have.

Ultimately, black caucus members are members of Congress, “and they’ve got to go back to their district and explain why we offshore people’s jobs. No number of rides on Air Force One is going to solve that problem,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, in an interview last week.

“I like this president. But this thing here? We can’t roll together on this,” he told a TV crew earlier in the day.

Last month, 14 Senate Democrats joined most Republicans to pass a bipartisan, “fast track” trade package that also includes assistance for workers displaced by trade agreements. The legislation would ease the president’s ability to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The deal, which the president would like to wrap up before his term ends, involves 12 nations (though not China) and covers about 40 percent of the global economy.

But fast track, which allows Congress an up-or-down vote on a trade deal but not the ability to amend it, is a much tougher sell in the House. Fewer than 20 Democrats have publicly sided with Obama. Fast track will need 218 votes to pass, and while Republicans, who generally favor trade deals, hold 245 seats – their largest majority since before the Great Depression – a sizable contingent also oppose fast track. Hence, the drama.

Holdouts from both sides are seeking deals, but the Republican leadership doesn’t want to change the carefully crafted package. Changes would necessitate going back to the Senate – a sure deal-killer.

And so the White House is looking under every Democratic rock for votes, coordinating closely with Republicans, and applying a full-court press to conservative Blue Dog Democrats, members from safe districts, and Democrats from port cities or big transport hubs. Anyone who will listen. That includes members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The White House courtship of the black caucus has been going on for months: personal phone calls from the president; face-to-face discussions with him or his trade representative; a group invite to the White House in February. Plus multiple Democratic briefings on the Hill. The message: This is not NAFTA.

For Fudge, that argument carries little weight, even for a president she trusts as much as Obama.

“I’m from an area that was a huge manufacturing mecca before NAFTA,” she says in an interview. “Now I understand this may not be the same deal. But the people in my district do not believe these kinds of deals are things that we should be supportive of.”

Likewise, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland, Calif. – a port city and heavily African American – adamantly opposes fast track and the TPP. At an anti-fast track rally at the foot of the Capitol steps last week, she said that trade deals disproportionately affect communities of color.

Her example: the “US-China trade deal,” in which 35 percent of jobs lost were in communities of color, according to the Communications Workers of America.

Except that there never was a US-China free trade agreement. Congresswoman Lee is referring to China joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 – exactly the kind of apples-to-oranges comparison that frustrates people like Rep. Gregory Meeks (D) of New York, who supports fast track and is busily lobbying his fellow black caucus members, as well as other Democrats.

“What I’m trying to do is see if we can talk about the actual facts,” says Congressman Meeks in an interview.

Are members worried about China? Then they ought to support this deal. Is he worried about high African-American unemployment? “You betcha, that’s why we have to do this deal,” he says. 

Union jobs are disappearing not because of trade agreements, but because of technology – like the auto-pay parking machines, he adds. His district includes John F. Kennedy Airport, so a boost in US exports would be a plus for some of his constituents.

Meeks lays the blame for the president’s tough slog squarely at the feet of organized labor and the “heavy, heavy lobbying” by the AFL-CIO. Some members, he says, committed to labor to oppose fast track last year, and now that they’ve seen the facts, they wish they had not made that commitment. Others, he said, are still weighing the politics versus the facts. “They’re agonized,” he says.

Members are complaining about hardball labor threats to fund primary campaigns against those who side with the president on trade – or, at least, to withhold campaign funds and support. African Americans, many representing low-income districts, are particularly dependent on labor contributions, and the president has promised to help supporters who may face a primary challenge.

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D) of Louisiana has said that labor is going overboard and may face a backlash among House members. And yet, he seems to agree with their argument, citing stagnant wages, high unemployment, and income inequality as reasons he may vote against fast track.

Representing the port city of New Orleans, Congressman Richmond, also a member of the black caucus, has been heavily lobbied by both labor and the administration. During the past six to seven months, he’s talked with the US trade representative and twice with the president – once face-to-face and recently on the phone.

“The president’s done everything except let me fly Air Force One,” he chuckled. Still, he said last week, “I’m leaning no.”

Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has had fast track authority, and Obama says he deserves the same respect. What about delivering for him and his legacy?

“Everybody keeps saying, ‘Well, you’re part of the black caucus; the president’s black.’ So what? Clarence Thomas is black! That doesn’t mean much to me,” answers Richmond, referring to the conservative African-American who sits on the Supreme Court.

Fudge feels similarly.

“There’s never going to be any president that has a stronger, more supportive group in this body than this president has had. There are many of us who just disagree with him on this issue.”

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