WASHINGTON — Last Thursday at noon, Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, sat waiting for a call from the White House. It would be his first such call in 35 years of organizing.
Johnson had been told by White House aides just 90 minutes before to expect the call. When the phone rang, on the other line were two administration officials: Yohannes Abraham, chief of staff in Valerie Jarrett’s Office of Public Engagement, and Luis Jimenez, former policy aide in Rahm Emanuel’s congressional office and an adviser to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. After a cordial but terse conversation about the president’s trade agenda — which Johnson, like the national AFL-CIO, rejects as dangerous for American workers — the White House aides signed off with a warning that Johnson immediately wrote down on the pad he was using for notes during the call.
“We can respect the integrity of your position, but as you lobby your congressional delegation, we would ask that you don’t tear the party apart or wound the party going forward,” Johnson was told.
The idea that his group’s efforts to convince Washington state’s elected leaders to vote against President Obama on trade could destroy the Democratic party itself was a surprise. “I found it pretty stunning,” Johnson said.
And it was weird that the White House was going straight to him, he said. It was even weirder, he said, that the White House thought it could drive a wedge between organized labor in Washington state and organized labor in the nation’s capital.
“Really, why would they do that? They either thought a call from the White House was sufficiently impressive — ‘Can I get you in line?’” Johnson said. “If that’s the case, they’re pretty naive.”
The story is just one of many from recent weeks as the White House executes an aggressive, furious, localized effort to break progressive opposition to one of its top priorities: President Obama’s trade agenda.
Unions, activists, and progressive lawmakers have united against the "fast track" authority Obama seeks to put back into place — a provision that would allow the president to negotiate trade deals and give Congress a simple up-or-down vote. They also oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Asian trade deal that the administration believes would become a cornerstone of Obama’s legacy. Another potential deal with the European Union has also rankled organized labor in the U.S.
Most expected some level of progressive opposition, but not for the issue to turn into a coalition-building rallying cry, drawing in national labor and the high-profile activism of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a united front. Last month, the AFL-CIO suspended all political donations to focus all its financial resources on fighting the White House trade deals. This week, the group launched a “week of action” featuring a rally of union workers on Capitol Hill and events in every state publicly opposing trade deals. The message is clear: Democrats who cross labor on trade could be on the short end when it comes time for labor to fire up its massive political money machine again.
But progressives have used strong-arm tactics in plenty of fights. On the trade fight, they say the White House is taking its pushback to a new level they haven’t seen. Hour-long calls to lawmakers, secret classified briefings on Capitol Hill, bully-pulpit wrangling by Obama, and even a shadowy new progressive-focused group launched by Obama’s supporters solely to sell the trade deals have all been part of the effort. Obama’s trade opponents see an organized effort by the White House to find any opening in the left-wing anti-trade-deal firewall to exploit — or, failing that, to create one through pressure on activists and lawmakers.
“I don’t know of one crack,” said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America and one of the most vociferous opponents of Obama’s trade plans. “They’re desperate to find a crack, but they won’t find one.”
Cohen said staff from the major labor unions, environmental groups, social justice groups, and other progressive entities — who are often at odds in the varied and sometimes byzantine world of left-wing political activism — meet once a week at various liberal HQs across Washington to map out their opposition to trade. Staff from Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s offices often attend the meetings, Cohen said. Warren’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Massachusetts Democrat has not been subtle in her skepticism toward Obama’s trade plans. Last month, she participated in an AFL-CIO conference call with press where she pushed both Obama and Hillary Clinton to better explain trade deals she said “undermine U.S. sovereignty.” Warren has also met with House Democrats at the invitation of DeLauro, who has been holding a number of briefings on TPP and TPA, a House staffer said.
But if Warren is lobbying Democrats, so is the White House. The perception of the administration and its allies is very different when it comes to the trade fight. They see organized progressive groups rallying against Obama’s trade agenda out of a political obligation stretching back decades, rather than out of a specific complaint with the deals the White House and its allies proudly tout as forged from progressive values, far more, they say, than deals like NAFTA passed under past Democratic presidents. Plenty of progressives support the administration on trade, they say. The administration insists it's not trying to play favorites among Democrats — or penalize those that stand against them — but rather push back with the facts after an onslaught of negativity released by the organized left.
"We don't see this as a partisan issue," an administration official said. Past trade deals have rankled the left, the administration readily admits, and they say they've taken those concerns into account and even made them a central part of the U.S. negotiating position when sitting down with potential trade partners. Some Democratic opposition was always part of the plan: The administration official noted that Republicans have in the past been the ones to pass trade deals, even under Democratic presidents.
But the White House hard sell to Democrats continues apace. Lawmakers told BuzzFeed News that top administration officials are spending hours working the phones and meeting with Democratic members in an attempt to get them to “yes.”
“It’s been different from my perspective, they generally don’t reach out to me for much,” said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky. “I talked to [Obama political adviser] David Simas at length about it the other day and what he told me gave me a very different perspective on what was being negotiated and made me think there was an argument to be made for progressives that this deal was a vast improvement.”
Hill aides and Democratic members described the push for TPP and and fast-track — the shorthand name for the provision that would give the president more authority to negotiate trade deals — from the White House as unprecedented. The Obama White House, not known for its cozy relationships with the Democratic caucus, is actively reaching out to lawmakers not used to getting the hard sell.
Part of the remaining problem for the administration, Yarmuth said, was that members feel like they’re in the dark — there’s not enough transparency. The TPP deal is still not complete, for one. And the negotiations with nations expected to be a part of the deal have been closed, as is standard practice.
“If you are negotiating secretly there is a huge vacuum for the other side to rev up their constituencies but you can’t negotiate in public,” he said.
The administration is also lobbying plenty on Capitol Hill. Michael Froman, the U.S. Trade Representative — whose past ties to Wall Street have always made progressives wary — has been to Capitol Hill repeatedly in the last several months to brief members on key committees.
Several classified trade briefings on the Hill have been hosted by White House officials at the request of Democratic leadership in the House. Lawmakers are taken into a secure room without staff and not allowed to discuss the proceedings afterward. Those briefings were meant in part to push back on the “transparency” complaint, but many left feeling unsatisfied.
“It was a joke,” said one progressive lawmaker. “There was nothing new in them. People were pissed they had their cell phones and staff taken away.”
The Obama administration believes it has taken real measures to make process open to members of Congress and their security-cleared staff. Fast-track authority, which expired under President Bush in 2007, legally required specific procedures be taken by the White House to keep Congress informed about the status of negotiations before a draft deal was sent to the Hill. The administration claims to have operated as though those rules are still in place, providing repeated opportunities for members to check out the draft proposal as it’s being negotiated. The U.S. Trade Representative keeps two paper copies of the draft deals in secure rooms in Congress for members to peruse, either alone or with a staffer who has security clearance. Like with the classified briefings, members are not allowed to discuss details of classified negotiations publicly.
Some of the transparency problem will be solved when the TPP deal is finally unveiled to the general public — something that might not happen until Congress has already taken a vote on fast track. Progressive advocates worry they won’t see the president’s trade deal before Congress can only vote up or down on the entire deal. Supporters of Obama’s trade policy say that’s a double-edged sword: Giving the Republican-controlled Congress the power to amend trade deals could mean language that protects progressive goals in the deal gets stripped.
The secrecy that often necessarily surrounds trade negotiations has complicated the White House’s hard sell.
"It’s hard to pass this stuff if the public has access to it, but, I mean, if you are trying to hide it from the public and their elected officials in Congress, maybe it shouldn’t be passing Congress anyway," said a former Senate aide and White House veteran.
The fight over transparency has also bubbled over into the public: Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, tore into Froman and trade officials during a March press conference after several briefings and accused them of “baffling” Democrats with “bullshit.”
“It's time for the ambassador — if he wants to get this trade deal through Congress — be honest with us,” Pocan said.
There are also signs that for all the extra lengths the White House is going to in order to sell the deal to Democrats, administration officials may not be as plugged into the situation on the ground as they need to be to change minds.
A Democratic member, who currently opposes the trade deal, said that White House officials have been aggressively courting him and trying to argue that business leaders in his district want to see a trade deal get done.
“They were very surprised to hear that no one back home is pushing for this,” the member said. “Labor is basically schooling them on events and outreach in every member’s district.”
A White House aide confirmed that the pitch on trade includes highlighting the support of business, part of a larger jobs and economy message the administration is using to sell the deals to wary Democrats: More trade means more jobs, and more jobs in sectors that can produce middle-class wages like manufacturing, the White House says.
"The president believes strongly that high standards for trade agreements that put American workers first, help our businesses grow and enshrine labor and environmental standards in the core of the agreement are vital to expanding the middle class and raising wages for our workers," said Brandi Hoffine, a White House spokesperson. "Our efforts are focused on negotiating the best possible deal and building a broad coalition in support of that deal. While negotiations are still ongoing, we’ve already seen environmental groups, business owners, local elected officials, national security leaders, economic experts, and many others voice their support for new, 21st century trade deals like the one under consideration."
The sales pitch is really just getting underway in full, though. The administration and particularly the USTR have been meeting with progressives, but have only lately have started engaging with the full power of the White House. An aide to a pro-trade-deal member of Congress agreed that the administration had ramped up their engagement significantly in recent months. Administration officials have been placing op-eds in targeted districts, and officials have been appearing at various trade events throughout the country to drum up support.
Froman, as recently as last week, spent time with Rep. Brad Ashford of Nebraska, talking to businesses about trade.
“The public is aware that they are standing with the president on this issue. The case is made this is something that president wants and the administration is really trying to give cover to these members in their districts,” the aide said.
Pro-Obama trade deal advocates hope that the existence of real trade language, possible in the coming weeks when TPP and other deals are brought before Congress, will soften the progressive opposition. Obama has defended his agenda, saying they put in writing many of the goals on workers’ rights and environmental protections advocates have pushed for, but has also said he’s ready to go around the more ardent members of his party if that’s what it takes to get fast track and trade deals done.
Progressives say the existence of real trade language only strengthens their argument, however.
“Once we have evidence, it will be even easier to make our case,” said Ilana Solomon, director of trade policy at the Sierra Club, one of the groups participating in the ad hoc weekly Washington progressive anti-fast-track coalition. “A bill will make it easier for us.”
Correction: Classified briefings on trade in Congress featuring White House officials were requested by House Democratic leadership. This story originally misstated the source of the briefings.