DES MOINES, Iowa — Hillary Rodham Clinton is distancing herself from President Barack Obama over a contentious trade proposal, encouraging the president to address concerns raised by congressional Democrats and negotiate a better deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations.
The Democratic presidential front-runner on Sunday told Iowa Democrats that Obama should seek more concessions as a way to improve the Trans Pacific Partnership and suggested she'd drive a harder bargain than Obama.
"No president would be a tougher negotiator on behalf of American workers, either with our trade partners or Republicans on Capitol Hill, than I would be," Clinton said. But Clinton, who is campaigning Monday in New Hampshire, declined to take a firm stance on the trade deal that has split Obama from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and rank-and-filed Democrats.
That wasn't acceptable to one of her chief Democratic rivals for the 2016 race, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"Is she for it? Is she against it?" Sanders told reporters in Indianola, Iowa. "Those are your two options."
The White House and Republican leaders in Congress are facing long odds in reviving the legislation after congressional Democrats helped defeat a job retraining program last week in a blow to Obama's attempt to secure so-called fast track authority. Without the authority to negotiate trade deals that Congress can approve or reject, but not amend, the president would face difficulty in securing the Asia trade deal after years of work.
Congressional Republicans have suggested they may try to revive the bill as early as this week. Pelosi decided to side with House Democrats and oppose Obama's plan, saying it required "a better deal for America's workers."
In Iowa, Clinton appeared to seek middle ground, saying while some support the deal and others vehemently oppose it, "I kind of fall in the group that says 'what's in it?' And 'let's make it as good as it can be, and then let's make a decision.'"
But that is unlikely to satisfy liberals and labor unions in the party who have organized against the trade pact.
Sanders has made his opposition to the TPP one of the centerpieces of his uphill campaign. Addressing Democratic activists in a park pavilion, the so-called "democratic socialist" railed against what he called a "disastrous" trade deal and said he would do everything he could to scuttle it.
"I kind of think people would prefer to hear what your position is — are you for it or against it?" Sanders said, asked later by reporters about Clinton's trade comments. "Rather than passing the buck and saying well, in a sense, I don't have a position. That is not leadership."
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has also opposed the deal and likened it to the North American Free Trade Agreement signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Democratic leaders, O'Malley said, should "step up and urge Congress not to fast track this bad trade deal. We've seen this movie before with NAFTA — a bad trade deal that devastated communities across the country and cost a million American jobs." His statement made no mention of Clinton.