President Obama offered an impassioned defense of his trade policy Friday, intensifying an intra-party war of words that threatens to spill over into the presidential race.
“On trade, I actually think some of my dearest friends are wrong,” Obama said in a speech at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. “They’re just wrong.”
Obama accused some critics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the multi-country pact that his administration is currently negotiating, of acting out of a “reflexive principle” of opposition to trade deals.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been the most prominent opponent of the agreement, saying it could make it easier for big corporations to ship jobs abroad, and criticizing the process as overly secretive. On Wednesday, Warren raised the fear that the deal could let Wall Street undo provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
“They’re making this stuff up,” Obama responded in his speech Friday, in unusually frank language for addressing a frequent ally. “This is just not true.”
Obama accused opponents of the deal of being “satisfied with the status quo,” adding, “ And the status quo hasn’t been working.”
Obama also dismissed the charge that the process is rushed and secretive, noting that the deal will be posted for 60 days before even going to Congress for a vote.
“Everybody’s going to be able to see exactly what’s in it,” Obama said. “There’s nothing fast track about this. This is a very deliberate track.”
Obama acknowledged that some past trade deals—including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed by President Bill Clinton— had led to the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. But he sought to portray the TPP as consistent with his middle class economic agenda, calling it “a different kind of trade deal.”
Warren is leading a group of Senate Democrats, including Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, opposed to giving Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate the deal without lawmakers being able to add amendments.
In his remarks, Obama acknowledged one of Oregon’s Democratic senators, Ron Wyden, but not the other, Jeff Merkley. Wyden helped broker a deal with Republicans on the fast track legislation, while Merkley opposes it.
The split could put the party’s likely 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, in an awkward spot.
While she was a member of the Obama administration as secretary of state, Clinton recently made supportive comments about TPP. But she has come under pressure lately—including from Latino activists she has been courting—to oppose the deal. And she has often sought to echo Warren on economic and inequality issues lately, as she looks to lock down support among her party’s base voters.
“Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security, and we have to do our part in making sure we have the capabilities and the skills to be competitive,” Clinton said in New Hampshire last month, without addressing TPP specifically .
Other actual and likely Democratic contenders for 2016 have been less equivocal. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, have strongly opposed fast-track authority.