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Why Obama is happy to fight Elizabeth Warren on the trade deal.

Why Obama is happy to fight Elizabeth Warren on the trade deal

“She’s absolutely wrong,” Barack Obama said, before I could even get the question out of my mouth.

He was talking about Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and populist crusader whom Obama helped elevate to national prominence. Warren generally reserves her more acid critiques for Republicans and Wall Street, but in recent weeks she’s been leading a vocal coalition of leftist groups and lawmakers who oppose the president’s free-trade pact with 12 Asian countries.

This past week, as I had just reminded Obama, Warren launched her heaviest torpedo yet against the trade deal, alleging that some future president might use it as an excuse to undo the reregulation of Wall Street that Obama signed into law in 2010. In fact, as the White House quickly pointed out, language in the pact would expressly prevent that unless Congress voted to allow it.

Three days after that broadside, when we sat down at Nike’s headquarters outside Portland, Ore., Obama still seemed unusually irritated.

“Think about the logic of that, right?” he went on. “The notion that I had this massive fight with Wall Street to make sure that we don’t repeat what happened in 2007, 2008. And then I sign a provision that would unravel it?

“I’d have to be pretty stupid,” Obama said, laughing. “This is pure speculation. She and I both taught law school, and you know, one of the things you do as a law professor is you spin out hypotheticals. And this is all hypothetical, speculative.”

Obama wasn’t through. He wanted me to know, in pointed terms, that for all the talk about her populist convictions, Warren had a personal brand she was trying to promote, too.

Why Obama is happy to fight Elizabeth Warren on the trade deal

“The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else,” he said. “And you know, she’s got a voice that she wants to get out there. And I understand that. And on most issues, she and I deeply agree. On this one, though, her arguments don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny.”

This is remarkable stuff for Obama. All presidents are forged, in a sense, by the moments at which they come to public life. Obama entered politics during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when urban liberals were growing disgusted with the president’s strategy of “triangulation,” popularly interpretedas the idea that you can win broad support by picking fights with the ideologues in your own party. Obama has always been reflexively averse to anything that might be construed as him pushing back against his friends to score political points with everyone else.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has mostly avoided public feuds with what his first press secretary, Robert Gibbs, liked to call the “professional left” — even when it’s meant sidestepping important disagreements on policy. Democratic politicians and interest groups, in turn, have been cautious in their criticism, offering only muted resistance when Obama stepped up the war in Afghanistan, or when he nearly negotiated a deal that would have restructured entitlements.

But like a marriage in which the spouses pretend to be happier than they really are, Obama’s polite alliance with the populist left appears to be suddenly crumbling under the weight of free trade. The more Warren and Senate colleagues like Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown attack the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, joined by big unions and environmental groups, the more liberated Obama seems to feel in portraying them as reckless and backward-looking, much as Clinton might have done. He evidences none of the self-doubt or conflicted loyalty that seemed plain when they criticized him for being too cautious on Wall Street reform or health care.

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