In a volte face that has taken US political observers by surprise, Hillary Rodham Clinton has joined her Democratic presidential rivals in opposing President Barack Obama's Pacific trade deal, delivering a major blow to a Democratic president under whom she has served as she works to court her party's liberal base.
The now-united opposition from the Democratic presidential field leaves Obama in the uncomfortable position of watching a Democratic presidential debate next week in which none of the major candidates is willing to defend a deal that the White House sees as a key piece of his presidential legacy.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord has enraged the labour unions, environmentalists and other liberal constituencies whose support is crucial in the Democratic primary contest (See: Obama faces flak as US, 11 other nations ink Trans-Pacific trade deal).
''I appreciate the hard work that President Obama and his team put into this process and recognize the strides they made,'' Clinton said in a statement. ''But the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don't believe this agreement has met it.''
She added, "I'm continuing to learn about the details of the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, including looking hard at what's in there to crack down on currency manipulation, which kills American jobs, and to make sure we're not putting the interests of drug companies ahead of patients and consumers. But based on what I know so far, I can't support this agreement."
Clinton promoted the deal in dozens of appearances as secretary of state during Obama's first term in office. She earlier said TPP "sets the gold standard in trade agreements." In her book, Hard Choices (which she sent out to all the GOP candidates), she called TPP "the signature economic pillar" of the Obama administration's strategy in Asia.
Her turnaround, clearly aimed at left-leaning Democratic voters, is all the more surprising because she can't even have reviewed the treaty, as it is not yet public. And her flip-flop was not lost on her opponents.
''Secretary Clinton can justify her own reversal of opinion on this but I can tell you that I didn't have one opinion eight months ago and then switch that opinion on the eve of debates,'' said Clinton's presidential rival, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.
Clinton's support for trade deals has seemed to fluctuate with the political calendar.
As first lady, she trumpeted the North American deal brokered by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, telling unionised garment workers in 1996 that the agreement was ''proving its worth''.
In a November 2007 presidential debate, Clinton described the North American agreement, with Canada and Mexico, as ''a mistake'' and called for a ''trade timeout''.
In that vein, she said she opposed then-pending trade agreements with Korea, Columbia, and Panama. But fast-forward to July 2011 when, as secretary of state, she described those three deals as ''critical to our economic recovery.''
Clinton aides know she must tread lightly when it comes to criticising Obama, given that much of her strategy relies on the still-loyal coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, women and younger voters that twice elected Obama. But at the same time, they say she must find ways to distinguish herself and undercut Republican attacks that Clinton would simply provide a third Obama term.