President Obama's pro-trade agenda is a problem for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE, who is under pressure from liberals to oppose her former boss’s push for fast-track authority as she prepares to run for the White House.
The Obama agenda is also highlighting the former secretary of State’s complicated record on trade, which could open the Democratic presidential front-runner to criticism from the left.
Robert Reich, who served as Labor secretary under former President Bill Clinton and opposes Obama's trade pitch, said the issue “could definitely be a headache for her in 2016 because it is so very unpopular among progressives.”
As first lady, Clinton watched her husband win approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, a deal that unions and liberal groups say eliminated U.S. jobs.
Clinton has distanced herself from NAFTA since then. In a 2007 Democratic debate, she called the agreement “a mistake.”
While some reports indicate Clinton backed NAFTA internally during her husband’s years in the White House, she told a union audience in 2008 that she raised the “yellow caution flag” against the pact. She and Obama both said they would renegotiate the controversial agreement during their 2008 presidential primary battle.
As a senator, Clinton backed bilateral trade deals with Singapore, Australia, Chile and Oman, but she voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. As Obama’s secretary of State, she supported a controversial Colombia trade agreement that organized labor vehemently opposed.
She also voted in 2002 against giving President George W. Bush fast-track authority — the same authority Bill Clinton employed during the 1990s and that Obama is now requesting.
Fast-track, or trade-promotion, authority makes it easier for an administration to negotiate trade deals by preventing Congress from amending them. Negotiating partners are generally more willing to offer concessions if they believe U.S. lawmakers will not subsequently reopen the talks. So winning fast-track approval could make it easier for Obama to conclude negotiations on a deal with the European Union and a separate deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Latin American and Asian nations.
Groups opposed to free trade policies view Clinton’s record with skepticism.
“Sen. Clinton has only not been a fan of the NAFTA-style trade agreements when it has been politically necessary to adopt fair trade rhetoric,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, which opposes giving Obama fast-track.
“I would be thrilled to see her take a different approach were she to become president,” Wallach said.
Clinton is expected to announce her entry into the presidential race as early as next month, just as the Obama administration’s efforts on trade may pick up. That will only increase the scrutiny of Clinton’s record on the issue.
A top labor official who opposes the deal also promised trade “is going to be an issue for Secretary Clinton when she announces.”
The main face of opposition to Obama on trade among Democrats is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). Warren has repeatedly said she will not be a White House candidate in 2016, but her arguments against Obama’s agenda could reverberate during a Clinton presidential run.
Opposition on the left could also help other would-be Clinton challengers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
Business groups and centrist Democrats have lined up in favor of Obama’s trade agenda.
And the president’s team argues that the TPP negotiations, which Canada and Mexico are involved in, could fulfill Obama’s promise to renegotiate NAFTA by ushering in new trade rules. (The governments of Canada and Mexico argue the TPP would not represent a NAFTA renegotiation.)
Will Marshall, president of centrist Democratic think tank the Progressive Policy Institute, said that “Democratic candidates in 2016 aren't going to get into trouble for supporting” the trade agreements.
“Most voters understand that America can't prosper in isolation and they have little interest in yet another reenactment of the long-ago battle of NAFTA,” he said.