Shadow Government

Is Obama Even Trying on Trade?

The president faces an enormous challenge on trade. He has built much of his Asian foreign policy around the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and much of his European foreign policy around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In each case, he did so on the promise to our international partners -- explicit or implicit -- that he would sooner or later bring Congress around.

It is now later. The TPP was nominally to conclude last year. Other countries' trade ministers have stated their desire to see it wrap up as soon as possible. They are waiting on White House efforts to win a negotiating mandate from Congress (known as TPA). While such a measure has met some Republican opposition, the most serious challenge has come from Democrats, particularly in the House. The Senate looked safer, at least before the president sent the bill's key Democratic backer, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), off to Beijing.

In the House, members of the president's party have voiced skepticism about what trade deals do. They believe those deals cost jobs, damage the environment, and harm workers. A key part of the president's task in his State of the Union address was to speak to these members of his party and their constituents watching at home. He had to persuade them that, while he had once espoused such positions and empathized, the critics were mistaken. Instead, here was the sum total of the president's pitch:

"...when 98 percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create even more jobs. We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment and open new markets to new goods stamped 'Made in the USA.'"

Even had the president made this statement at the beginning of last summer, when discussions were just starting up on the TPA, it would have been cursory. Few people are persuaded by the bare assertion that their strong beliefs are false and the opposite is true. Usually, to change minds, some supporting detail is required, some evidence, or a carefully structured argument. Weak mercantilist claims are easily rejected by skeptics (e.g. if trade is good because exports bring jobs, what does it mean when we run a trade deficit and imports exceed exports?).

Not only did the president fail to make much of a sales pitch, but his vague call to ‘work together' comes at a time when a bipartisan bill has been crafted and the battle lines are drawn. By not mentioning the bill, nor taking a stance on the controversial facets under debate -- currency provisions, intellectual property protection clauses, trade adjustment assistance -- the White House remains on the sidelines, hoping that TPA will simply fall into its lap without much expenditure of effort or political capital.

Success on the trade front was going to require experienced leadership in the Congress and a concerted public and private persuasion campaign from the President. Instead, the last month has brought the removal of an irreplaceable Capitol Hill proponent and noncommittal nods from the White House. This does not bode well.

Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Washington's Version of the Awards Ceremony

It's like the Academy Awards without awards or celebrities or high style. It's like the Grammys without music or celebrities or outré style. It's like Sundance without screenings or deals or celebrities or coolness. The State of the Union is Washington's version of the president's awards ceremony. It's an endless acceptance speech. And on foreign and defense policy, it's especially boring five years into a presidency defined by defining down expectations of America in the world.

The White House was madly advancing that the president would be upbeat and not confrontational; it came off sounding weary and as though he were talking about somebody else's government. The president actually congratulated himself for the lowest unemployment in five years, as though all five weren't his to account for. He emphasized the need to close Guantanamo and reduce reliance on drone warfare and rein in surveillance, as though he hadn't been in charge of them these last five years.

On international issues, the speech was embarrassingly solipsistic. The president talked about beating other countries out for high-tech manufacturing, going all-in on innovation to "own the global economy tomorrow." He gloated about America outpacing investment in China (the veracity of which is subject to some dispute). I wish the president could comfortably wear pride in our country without sounding like Alec Baldwin in the Major League Baseball commercial bragging about the Yankees -- "lawn mowers don't have a rivalry with grass."

On one national security issue the president was very direct: The way we have fought the wars and Iraq and Afghanistan was playing into the terrorists' hands, calling them "large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism." Again, he was the commander in chief for the last five years in which we fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with large-scale deployments. It is an extraordinary statement that he believes the way his own administration has conducted those wars drained our strength and fostered the very enemy we are fighting.

In addition to the implications for the wars, the president's adamance that large-scale deployments not only drain our strength but help the enemy has enormous significance for the debate about what types and numbers of military forces we need. If I were the Army, I'd be rethinking the force structure plans, because with the president's State of the Union address, the bottom just fell out of their justification for 490,000 active-duty soldiers.

Again tonight the president shined a bright light on a wounded soldier. I wish the president could talk about the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen without making them all sound like disabled veterans. The men and women fighting our wars deserve more than our pity, more even than our respect: They deserve our understanding and our familiarity. But the way this administration talks about veterans actually increases the distance between Americans and our military, makes them seem different from the rest of us instead of part of us, and that's actually a disservice to them.

At least the president didn't petulantly announce the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 2014 -- but he did say that the war would be over by the end of the year, though we might leave "a small force of Americans" to train Afghans and conduct counterterrorism missions. Hardly a ringing endorsement of his own policy, and unclear how it would demonstrate to our enemies the resolve he claims to have.

Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images