The intra-party fight initiated by President Obama's trade push, though framed by the White House as a momentary setback, represents a larger miscalculation by the president of his own political capital and ability to shift Democratic allegiances.
Even if Obama is able to secure Trade Promotion Authority in coming weeks and finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership — both uphill battles — the public spat speaks volumes about the disconnect between the president and his party.
For months, White House officials assumed they would have backing from most Republicans and enough Democrats to grant Obama greater trade authority, which would allow him to submit trade deals such as the Pacific pact to Congress for a simple up-or-down vote without amendments.They were wrong.
What the White House misunderstood, say those heavily involved in assisting their efforts, was the level of Democratic antipathy towards any trade deal and the amount of work it would take to undo such hardened opposition. They also didn't anticipate that pro-trade Republicans would be so turned off by Obama's repeated use of executive action that they would question greater trade authority for him.
"It's difficult to defend the political management of this by Obama's team," said one Democratic operative. "I think they underestimated how much erosion there had been on trade. They didn't understand the depth of how bad it was. And they've been operating with a deficit ever since."
Obama stepped up his lobbying on trade only after it appeared that his agenda was in real trouble. And even then, the president focused on a small group of pro-trade Democrats, writing off most lawmakers in his party.
Obama's allies insist they have changed minds on trade, pointing to a string of recent polls that show growing support within the Democratic Party for new deals with other nations. Yet the more Obama pushed Democrats, the more they seemed to pull away.
Many Democrats are puzzled as to why Obama chose to take on his own party over the issue. Progressives argue that their positions now are identical to those espoused by Obama as a senator, accusing the president of abandoning them, not the other way around.
Many of the benefits of reaching a trade deal with the 11 other nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, they point out, would be felt more by Obama's successor than the current commander in chief. And China, which isn't part of the pact, has given no indication that the deal would alter how it conducts business, at least in the short term.
Unlike immigration, for example, some party insiders see trade as a largely esoteric issue, one that is unlikely to garner much attention outside of Washington.
When asked what Obama gets out of a victory on trade, aside from burnishing his legacy, allies say it's part of a broader rethink of U.S. priorities, shifting away from a relentless focus on the Middle East. In other words, it's part of Obama's long-promised "pivot to Asia."
"This will be an enormous updating of the international system. It's a net positive," argued Simon Rosenberg, a presidential campaign adviser for Bill Clinton and founder of the New Democrat Network, a liberal think tank. "This stuff becomes a huge test of this broken city's ability to do the things it did when we were growing up. It will be an enormous affirmation of America's role in setting the rules of the road, the way the world works."
White House officials privately concede that many Democrats have an outdated view of trade, one that is beholden to special interests such as labor unions and environmentalists, and are out of touch with the rapid pace of globalization.
The president has argued that Democrats are flat-out "wrong" on what the trade deal would mean for American workers.
For Obama, though, the revolt serves as a vivid reminder of his lame-duck status and has only emboldened Democrats who wish to challenge him in the future.
"We may have reached that tipping point," said a senior aide for a Senate Democrat who opposes Obama on trade. "We hear what he's saying. It doesn't mean we buy any of it or feel any need to get in line."