Hillary Rodham Clinton declared her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord on Wednesday, marking her most significant break with President Obama and the policies she once promoted as his chief diplomat.
"I think there are still a lot of unanswered questions," she said of the sweeping trade deal in an interview with PBS' "Newshour." ''As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it."
Her push-back against the chief economic proposal of Mr. Obama's second term is a blow to the president, undermining his efforts to win congressional approval of a deal years in the making. It also underscores the ways Ms. Clinton must break from her work in the Obama administration to appeal to a party base seeking a new liberal standard bearer.
Clinton joins the rest of the Democratic field in challenging a trade pact that's enraged the labor unions, environmentalists, and other liberal constituencies whose support will be crucial to her electoral success. The now-united opposition from the party's presidential contenders leaves Obama in the uncomfortable position of watching a Democratic debate next week in which none of the major candidates is willing to defend a deal that the White House sees as a key piece of his presidential legacy.
A potential exception is Vice President Joe Biden, who has yet to say whether he will join the race. His office said Wednesday that he supports the agreement and will work to get it approved in Congress.
Clinton said in a statement, "I appreciate the hard work that President Obama and his team put into this process and recognize the strides they made. But the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don't believe this agreement has met it."
In the interview, Clinton said the agreement does not meet her standard for creating jobs, raising wages, and protecting national security. She raised specific concerns about a potential for currency manipulation by China and provisions that she said would benefit pharmaceutical companies at the expense of patients.
Her position on the agreement marks a striking reversal for the former secretary of state, who promoted the deal in dozens of appearances during Obama's first term in office – a turnaround that was not lost on her primary opponents.
"Secretary Clinton can justify her own reversal of opinion on this but I can tell you that I didn't have one opinion eight months ago and then switch that opinion on the eve of debates," said one rival, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Clinton's support for trade deals has seemed to fluctuate with the political calendar.
As first lady, she trumpeted the North American deal brokered by her husband, telling unionized garment workers in 1996 that the agreement was "proving its worth."
Her support for trade pacts began softening during her time as a New York senator, when she voted for agreements with Chile, Singapore, Oman, and Morocco but opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
In a November 2007 presidential debate, Clinton described the North American agreement, with Canada and Mexico, as "a mistake" and called for a "trade timeout."
In that vein, she said she opposed then-pending agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. But fast-forward to July 2011 when, as secretary of state, she described those three deals as "critical to our economic recovery."
She also repeatedly lent her support to the Pacific trade initiative being pushed by Obama, describing the deal during a 2012 trip to Australia as the "gold standard in trade agreements."
Clinton's campaign and the Obama administration have always said the time would come when she would outline her own policies and deliver criticisms, implied and direct, of the president.
Still, Clinton aides know she must tread lightly when it comes to criticizing Obama, given that much of her strategy relies on the still-loyal coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, women, and younger voters that twice elected Obama. But at the same time, they say she must find ways to distinguish herself – and undercut Republican attacks that Clinton would simply provide a third Obama term.
The White House doesn't deny that Clinton's new distance has sometimes created awkwardness for the president. Many of Clinton's top aides joined her campaign from the White House and the two staffs remain in frequent communication. Briefing her on the trade deal was policy aide Jake Sullivan, who formerly worked in the White House as national security adviser to Vice President Biden.
The Clinton campaign gave White House aides a heads-up Wednesday before she made the comments, according to a White House official who asked for anonymity in discussing the private conversation.
The White House had no immediate comment on Clinton's position. When asked earlier Wednesday about the strong opposition to the deal in the Democratic Party, spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Clinton's opposition wouldn't sink the deal.
Mr. Earnest noted the "intense opposition" from Democrats in the summer, when the administration pushed for legislation giving the president "fast-track" trade promotion powers.
"The fact is, despite that opposition, the president did succeed in building a bipartisan majority in both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate to secure the passage of that legislation," he said.