What Chicago Democrats Tell Us About President Obama's Problems on Trade
When Barack Obama launched himself on the fast track to the presidency, running for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) was right there with him.
He served, in fact, as master of ceremonies for his campaign launch, Davis recalls with a chuckle: “He’s a person that I have supported pretty much straight down the line.”
With his presidency waning and a Republican Congress obstructing all but a handful of items on his legislative agenda, Obama has one more big request for House Democrats like Davis: a vote to grant his administration “fast track” negotiating authority, paving way for the completion of the vast Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord.
Despite months of lobbying and personal appeals from Obama, Davis has made clear the president can look elsewhere for support.
”I recognize that the president does indeed want this legislation passed,” he said. “The people who vote for me in the 7th District have their position, and accurate, right, wrong, whatever — it’s the position of the people.”
Davis, who represents downtown Chicago and a swath of the city’s west and south sides, is hardly an outlier in Obama’s home town — where he came to organize communities decimated by lost manufacturing jobs before starting a family and launching a political career.
In a city where clout is king, the most powerful man on the planet seems to have none. Ahead of Friday’s scheduled votes, only one of the nine House Democrats who represent Chicago and its suburbs has committed to supporting the trade legislation.
The Illinois delegation’s lack of faith in Obama almost perfectly aligns with the House as a whole. With barely 20 of the 188 House Democrats currently committed, it is clear Republicans must provide the vast majority of support if Obama’s top domestic legislative priority is going to be passed Friday.
Obama’s failure to persuade Chicagoland Democrats is emblematic of the difficulties he has had convincing Democrats across the country, who have been unwilling to accept the president’s assurances that the trade deals negotiated under the new authority would contain unprecedented protections for workers, domestic industry and the environment and have instead aligned themselves with the labor unions and activist groups who constitute the bedrock of the party base.
Even those who acknowledge the parochial politics behind lawmakers’ individual decisions are surprised by the lack of loyalty.
“Any Illinois Democrat who says they’re going to be the last vote to kill one of the president’s legacy items, I just don’t think they’re going to be judged very well over the long term,” said Tom Bowen, a Chicago political consultant who advises Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Rep. Mike Quigley, Chicago’s only pro-trade-deal House Democrat. “There are rare opportunities for getting something done that your president asks you to do, that he’s willing to put his stamp on, and there’s no Democrat who can argue with a straight face that Barack Obama hasn’t been the most progressive president probably since Lyndon Johnson.”
Even Obama’s closest ally on Capitol Hill, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), sided with labor and activist groups against a friend who happens to be the first Illinois Democrat to be elected president.
Durbin, who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement when he held a downstate House seat in 1993, said his personal relationship with Obama “was a factor which was raised several times in conversation between the president and myself.”
“But he had the votes here, and I knew it and he knew it,” he continued. “I believe in trade, but I believe our trade agreements are not as complete as they should be and don’t serve our state as well as they should.”
In the House, objections from Illinois Democrats have varied, but all who oppose the pending deal cite the effects of previous trade deals, especially NAFTA, which was ratified in 1993.
For Rep. Bill Foster, a physicist, it comes down to the data — and a hard calculation of whether the TPP or other trade deals negotiated under fast track will net good paying jobs for his district in the southwest suburbs. He is not convinced it will unless provisions are included to address currency manipulation by other countries; those provisions, aimed mostly at China, have generated veto threats from the White House.
Foster said he has not been asked to vote with Obama for personal or political reasons, only on the policy. “He’s a university professor; I’m a scientist,” he said last week. “That’s the level at which the discussion is.”
Reps. Daniel Lipinski and Bobby L. Rush have had distant political relations with Obama to begin with, and both have cited potential harm to workers in their public statements on trade.
“You talk to Ford, who has a big plant on the South Side of Chicago, and they will tell you that the TPP is a bad deal for American manufacturing,” Lipinski said at a Wednesday news conference in Capitol Hill. “We cannot let this happen.”
Reps. Tammy Duckworth and Robin L. Kelly have both issued similar statements skeptical of trade deals. They have the additional complication of pursuing potential 2016 Senate bids, which might make them even more reticent to alienate key elements of the Democratic political base.
Veteran Rep. Jan Schakowsky — a former progressive organizer who represents the city’s far north side and liberal suburbs such as Evanston and Skokie — is considered so close to labor and left-wing activist groups that she said neither Obama nor his aides ever approached her about supporting the trade legislation.
“Once he said on television, ‘Look, even some of my longest-term supporters are on the other side,’ and I sort of waved at the TV,” said Schakowsky, who delivered Obama a key endorsement during his 2004 Senate run. “We’re with the president on so many other things. . . . We have the greatest admiration and affection and, by and large, support for the president. Not here.”
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez said the politics of trade haven’t shifted much since 1993, when he was a freshman and President Bill Clinton’s NAFTA whip team included Chicagoans like Bill Daley, son of a former mayor and brother of the then-mayor, and Emanuel, a future mayor then a young presidential aide.
“When Hillary and Obama were running in 2008, when NAFTA came up, I don’t remember the president making an enthusiastic defense, and Hillary was almost apologetic,” he said.
The all-politics-is-local factor also applies, Gutierrez said: “You didn’t see anybody punish me for voting against NAFTA, did you?”
Obama’s lone Democratic ally in the Illinois delegation is Quigley, a former Cook County board member who likes to tell a story about how he took Obama to breakfast after he’d lost his 2000 bid to unseat Rush. He says he offered Obama this condolence: “Well, there’ll be something for you someday.”
Unlike most of his Democratic colleagues in Illinois and elsewhere, Quigley did not make an extended display of agony over his decision. He recalled a White House meeting with other House members last year, where Obama polled the table about their feelings on trade.
“He’s got to be thinking, after all I’ve been through, you can’t do this one tough thing for me?” Quigley said. “I said, ‘I’m with you, and my job is to help others join you.’ It was liberating.”
He is now one of a small handful of House Democrats who have played a leading role in trying to sell the trade deal to skeptical colleagues.
That lonely position has earned Quigley the ire of organized labor and progressive activists, the same elements of the Democratic Party that made Emanuel’s reelection bid earlier this year a whole lot more dramatic than once anticipated.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, about 50 protesters gathered outside Quigley’s North Side congressional office to chant “Quigley says fast track; we say fight back” and deliver a petition to his staff.
“It defies demographic explanation,” said Carson Starkey, director of the Illinois Fair Trade Campaign, an umbrella group of labor and progressive activists. “He is in a very deep blue district, going back to Dan Rostenkowski.. . . It sort of baffles us that he’s adopted the position of the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Club for Growth.”
Echoing the message that has come from AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka on down, Chicago activists have suggested Quigley might find himself with a primary opponent on his hands come next year.
Celeste Larkin, public policy coordinator for the Chicago Religious Leadership Network, which has participated in the anti-fast-track protests, said their goal has been “to make this as contentious as possible for as long as possible” for Quigley.
“He’s burning constituencies across his district. He’s burning labor, he’s burning immigrants, he’s burning the faith community,” she said. “I think Mike Quigley feels safe. . . . He should be afraid, he should be nervous.”
Quigley isn’t feeling nervous so much as exasperated at his fellow partisans’ unwillingness to support their president.
”To me, it is the most disappointing thing the Democrats have ever done is not to trust the president on this,” he said. “It is the one blind spot in my mind to the 99 the Republicans have. If they take my Democratic card, so be it. I love being a Democrat, but this one’s maddening.”
Obama has pledged to support pro-trade-deal Democrats in various ways, and Quigley already has been rewarded for his loyalty: He was one of four House Democrats who support the trade agreement invited to join Obama this weekend at the Group of Seven economic talks in Germany.
On Monday, while the two were aboard Air Force One returning to Washington, Obama tweeted a photo of him and Quigley, holding a Chicago Blackhawks jersey ahead of the evening’s Stanley Cup hockey game.
As for the response from labor, Quigley said, “It hasn’t been positive. My response is, ‘You’re going to need me.’ ”
For instance, Quigley is the only Illinois Democrat serving on the House Appropriations Committee, where he is the second-ranking Democrat on the transportation subcommittee.
Even Starkey acknowledged that threats of a primary challenge are mostly hollow. “There is a better chance of Barack Obama winning a third election in Texas than Mike Quigley losing a primary challenge,” he said.
But for most of Quigley’s colleagues, even the threat of a primary challenge is a hassle best avoided.
“Fortunately for the president, he will not have to run again,” Davis said. “Our situations are different. If you’ve got to go before the voters for election, you want to be as close to them as you possibly can.”
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