Barack Obama made headlines this week by taking on Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a dispute over our latest labor-crushing free trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The president's anger over Warren's decision to lead the Senate in blocking his authority to fast-track the TPP was heavily covered by the Beltway media, which loves a good intramural food fight.
It was quite a show, which was the first clue that something wasn't quite right in this picture. The Beltway press made a huge spectacle out of how the "long-simmering" Obama-Warren "feud" had turned "personal."
And there were lots of suggestions that the president, in his anger toward Warren, simply let his emotions get the best of him – that he let slip impolitic and perhaps sexist words in his attacks on Warren, whom he described as "absolutely wrong" and "a politician like everyone else."
Reuters, taking the cheese all the way with this "it just got personal" storyline that people on both sides of the Warren-Obama spat have been pimping to us reporters all week, quoted observers who put it like this:
"The president miscalculated in making this about Elizabeth Warren, that backfired badly. It only served to raise awareness of the issue and drive people away from his position," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist who has worked with labor unions opposed to the pact.
"It never makes sense to make these kinds of issues personal," he said.
Politicians do get angry. They even sometimes get angry in public. They are, after all, human, in some cases anyway.
But politicians mostly only take their masks off when cornered: stuck in a televised argument with an expert irritant, called to speak in a legislative chamber just as that nagging case of intermittent explosive disorder kicks in, surprised by a ropeline question on the campaign trail, etc.
But if you think that Barack Obama, one of the coolest cucumbers ever to occupy the White House, sat down for a scheduled interview in front of a professional softballer like ex-Times and current Yahoo pundit Matt Bai – a setup that's the presidential media equivalent of a spa treatment – and just suddenly "lost it" in a discussion about the TPP, you've been had.
Almost without a doubt, Obama's remarks were carefully scripted. And it's likely all of these "whispers" suddenly circulating on the Hill about a percolating genuine personal feud between Obama and Warren also came from a focus-group-aided strategy meeting somewhere.
Even Bai approvingly described Obama's move as an effort to triangulate the "professional left." These tactics make a lot of sense politically, and within the Beltway, chiding the "unrealistic" progressives of the Warren ilk is considered almost a rite of passage for politicians on the blue side who want to prove they're "serious about governing."
Triangulating – beating up on the ideologues within your own party in order to shore up your centrist cred and reassure your money sources – is an especially brilliant solution for Democrats targeting national office. Those politicians need virtual monopolies on union and minority votes, but also need just enough centrists and white southerners to stay viable. To keep those latter votes, you need to make a few very conspicuous moves from time to time.
That's surely what happened here with the TPP, a monster deal with the potential to reshape not just our trade profile but our domestic financial regulatory structure. Along with a Democratic Party that would love one last chance to prove itself to Wall Street heading into 2016, Obama badly wants this deal passed, perhaps as a way to steer his legacy in a more bipartisan direction before he rides off into the sunset.
So he picked just the right moment and just the right words to goad the press into painting him as someone who's just so angry at Elizabeth Warren's failure to understand how the real world looks from behind the Oval Office desk, he just couldn't keep his feelings reined in. He tried to retain his usual Björn Borglike exterior, but the oven-mitt questioning of Matt Bai just beat it out of him!
Backing up for a moment: if there's one thing that a generation of free trade agreements has taught us, it's that it's a mistake to read too much into the fine print of any of these deals. With both the WTO and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), there were all sorts of horror stories that were circulated about ordinary Americans ending up surrendering their sovereignty to corporate-friendly secret tribunals in Switzerland and other cabals.
That hasn't exactly happened. But what certainly has happened is that we've racked up enormous trade deficits with the countries that are signatories to our free trade deals. No matter how you slice it, these deals reduce the percentage of American exports while accelerating imports from countries where workers not only often have crappy workplace protections (if they have any at all), but sometimes have reduced political freedoms as well.
This deal Obama is proposing is supposed to contain the strongest labor and environmental provisions ever, and, well, who knows. I seriously doubt it. It seems like just another way to make screwing foreign and domestic workers cheaper for the boardroom set, which is certainly a goal such people have a right to pursue. That part of it – the part where Wall Street hasn't sucked enough of the world dry yet and so wants this deal too, knowing the White House is willing to oblige – that isn't the really bad part.
The part that's really irritating is that the same politicians who whine every chance they get about being unfairly painted as Marxists on Fox and Clear Channel are now cleverly using the animus generated by those news outlets against the Elizabeth Warrens of the world as shortcuts to political gain.
Both the Clintons and Obama, remember, have singled out Fox and the media part of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" as warts on the face of America. The Obama White House has even called Fox "a wing of the Republican Party," and "not really a news station."
But ask yourself this: how much triangulating kick would Obama really get out of piling on Elizabeth Warren if she wasn't right-wing America's current favorite Trojan-Horse Trotsky? If she wasn't pitched as being so "left" that Bill O'Reilly said she would make Obama look like "Reagan" in comparison?
The reality is, as much as the mainstream Democratic Party whines about Fox and its cohorts, they constantly use all the negative energy of the conservative media as free marketing. Instead of standing in true partnership with unions and working people and employing a strategy of forcing the rest of the world to democratize and grant workers real rights in exchange for access to American consumers, they've done the opposite – beating up on the captured labor demographic as a way to reassure big business.
Again, this goes back to Clinton, Al From, Dick Morris, the DLC days. Third Way Dems first dared American workers to try to get a better deal with Republicans. Then, once they established that they could safely take minorities and labor for granted, they used right-wing caricatures of welfare moms or rappers to score points with the political middle.
It's clever, and it sure as hell works as a way to win elections. It just seems like doing the right thing and standing up for actual people would work just as well.