The ridiculousness of the Obama/Warren sexism flap

Senator Elizabeth Warren, right, gazes in the direction of President Barack Obama during a formal ceremony to dedicate the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston on March 30, 2015.
Jessica Rinaldi | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

The politics surrounding President Barack Obama's push for fast-track trade authority and big a Pacific rim trade deal were already highly complex.

Now, they include charges of presidential sexism.

The allegation came Tuesday from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, after Senate Democrats blocked the first cloture vote on Obama's push for fast-track trade promotion authority (TPA). Brown criticized Obama for what he called "disrespectful" comments about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., over trade legislation. Among the critiques: "I think referring to her as first name, when he might not have done that for a male senator, perhaps? I've said enough."

The administration was not pleased with Brown's remark. Defenders of the president noted that he regularly refers to male senators, including Brown, by their first names. In Columbus, Ohio, in 2012, for example, Obama said: "[W]e announced the work that we've done, in conjunction with Sherrod, to make sure that we're filing a new WTO case challenging China's illegal trade and subsidies."

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And in Columbus in 2009, Obama said: "Give Sherrod a big round of applause." Obama has repeatedly referred to other male senators, including "Chuck" Schumer by their first names.

I asked Brown's office if the senator would like to back off the sexism comments in light of Obama's other first-name references. A spokesperson declined to do so. And defenders of Brown's comment note that Obama's first-name references generally come when he is actually with someone on stage, making them more palatable.

In the case of Warren, they say, Obama referred to her as "Elizabeth" when she was not present as a way of diminishing her. The remark in question came last month when Obama said: "I love Elizabeth. We're allies on a whole host of issues. But she's wrong on this." Obama went on in other venues to critique Warren's position and that of other Democrats who oppose TPA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as bad for workers and the environment.

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On Wednesday, the White House kept up its push to get Brown to back off his remarks. On MSNBC, White House spokesman Joshua Earnest called Brown a "stand-up guy" and predicted he would walk back the comment. "I'm confident after he's had a chance to look at the comments he made yesterday that he'll find a way to apologize," Earnest said.

Brown should probably take that advice. Because the idea that Obama is being sexist toward Warren is pretty ridiculous in light of his previous first-name references and the relationship he has with the Massachusetts senator.

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Also on MSNBC on Wednesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., pointed this out. "I think it's silliness. The president and Elizabeth Warren are friends. I think if he would called her Senator Warren someone would have said, 'Oh, he's giving her the cold shoulder,'" McCaskill said. "They disagree on policy. I would be freaked out if he didn't call me by my first name. We've known each other for a long time. He went to bat for Elizabeth Warren in terms of [the] Consumer Protection Bureau. They worked closely together on Dodd-Frank. He just thinks she's wrong on this and he has the right to say that as president of the United States."

Charges of sexism also belittle Warren, who has played a serious game of hardball versus the president on trade. She's hit TPA from every possible angle, including highly dubious claims that it could lead to the dismantling of Dodd-Frank under some future president. She's also claimed that TPP could wind up shredding U.S. laws under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement process despite the fact that the U.S. has never lost a case before an ISDS panel. Warren is perfectly capable of taking on the president without people like Brown saying Obama is being mean to her.

Meanwhile, the failure of the first cloture vote on TPA in the Senate does not mean the bill is dead. Far from it. Once it is extricated from the blood-feud between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid, TPA still stands a very good chance of passing the Senate without poison pills on currency manipulation or anything else that could ultimately sink TPP.

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The main battle for the administration remains the House, where Obama will need a solid block of Democratic support to offset Republicans who either oppose TPA on the merits or simply don't want to say yes to Obama on anything.

By the time the issue reaches the House, cries of sexism are likely to have died down. Because the trade fight is about many things but gender is not one of them.

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—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.