US: Is Obama flipflopping on so-called “Free Trade”?

by Jonathan Tasini

Yesterday, Sen. Obama made comments to a business reporter that leave the impression that he is already shifting his stated position on NAFTA and, by extension, so-called “free trade”. It is worth looking at as a sign where Sen. Obama really intends to lead us on trade if he wins the White House.

A few overall observations to try to steer the discussion in a productive way:

1. This isn’t a debate about whether you are for Sen. Obama or for a third George Bush term. That’s a no-brainer.

2. If elected, Sen. Obama has the potential to be a great president–not principally because of his abilities and vision but because of the expectations he has created from millions of people who are really pissed off and are ready to get behind deep, systemic change.

3. The issue of so-called “free trade” and, by extension, how one views the power of corporate America to shape our economic lives is, from my little vantage point, THE deep, systemic change question on the economic vision side. Sen. Obama’s economic solutions, at least those embodied in his proposals to date, are inadequate, some seriously so, in meeting the expectations he has raised–which raises for him, and the Democratic Party, a very serious political dilemma. No more so than on the question of so-called “free trade”.

4. Some would say, “let’s not have these debates before November”. That is a legitimate position with which I respectfully disagree. Whatever mandate Sen. Obama comes into office with (and I believe the election will not be close, Electoral College-speaking) has to be shaped by agreements and views shaped now.

So, yesterday, here is what Sen. Obama said to Fortune Magazine:
The general campaign is on, independent voters are up for grabs, and Barack Obama is toning down his populist rhetoric – at least when it comes to free trade.

In an interview with Fortune to be featured in the magazine’s upcoming issue, the presumptive Democratic nominee backed off his harshest attacks on the free trade agreement and indicated he didn’t want to unilaterally reopen negotiations on NAFTA.

“Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified,” he conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake,” despite nonpartisan studies concluding that the trade zone has had a mild, positive effect on the U.S. economy.

Does that mean his rhetoric was overheated and amplified? “Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don’t exempt myself,” he answered.

Here is what Sen. Obama says on his website about trade and NAFTA:

Obama believes that trade with foreign nations should strengthen the American economy and create more American jobs. He will stand firm against agreements that undermine our economic security.

* Fight for Fair Trade: Obama will fight for a trade policy that opens up foreign markets to support good American jobs. He will use trade agreements to spread good labor and environmental standards around the world and stand firm against agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement that fail to live up to those important benchmarks. Obama will also pressure the World Trade Organization to enforce trade agreements and stop countries from continuing unfair government subsidies to foreign exporters and nontariff barriers on U.S. exports.
* Amend the North American Free Trade Agreement: Obama believes that NAFTA and its potential were oversold to the American people. Obama will work with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to fix NAFTA so that it works for American workers.

Here is what Sen Obama said on the campaign trail:

Sen Clinton has gotten mad at me, because I said she supported NAFTA,” Obama said at a rally in Toledo. “She said, ‘Well, that’s misleading.’ And I had to say, ‘Well, hold on a second.’ The Clinton administration championed NAFTA, passed NAFTA, signed NAFTA. She’s saying that part of the experience that makes her the best qualified to be president is all the work that she was doing in the Clinton administration. You can’t take credit for everything that’s good in the Clinton administration and then suddenly say you don’t want to take credit for what folks don’t like about the Clinton administration.”

Here is what Sen Obama said back in 2004 when he was running for the Senate:

Obama said the United States benefits enormously from exports under the WTO and NAFTA. He said, at the same time, there must be recognition that the global economy has shifted, and the United States is no longer the dominant economy.” [emphasis added]

I do not want to go down the road of the hoo-hah over what, if anything, was said to the Canadians by Sen. Obama’s campaign because that is a black hole, with people still arguing whether it was true or not. I think the record, in his own words, is much more useful.

And what does that show? Believe it or not, I think this is complicated–and complication is not the stuff of political debate these days. Here is what I would say:

First, Sen. Obama believes in so-called “free trade”. He has said so, on numerous occasions.

Second, during the campaign, he took a very hard, negative line against NAFTA, in large part because it was a useful–and correct–criticism of Sen Clinton’s support for NAFTA (she simply lied about her past position but that is not the topic of this post so I’ll just leave it at that).

Third, of more concern, he found it now necessary, as the nominee, to “moderate” his views on so-called “free trade”, particularly to a business readership–the Fortune magazine interview. Instead, he could have co-sponsored a ground-breaking piece of trade legislation offered by fellow Democrats–but he has not. This should raise concerns about how he would conduct his presidency on the topic of trade, rhetoric aside. If even as the nominee he feels a need to appease the business community, what can be expected when he is president?

Fourth, I think he is somewhat conflicted. I think the community organizer in him comes out when he speaks to union audiences or listens to the policy arguments that make a persuasive case about the damage of so-called “free trade”. He understands oppression and corporate power. But, I think he also has deeply ingrained a faith–misguided, I would add–in marketing phrases like “free trade” and “free market”. I think those faiths have been ingrained in him not the least of which comes from his Harvard education, an institution where the belief in these marketing phrases is almost a religion.

From the beginning of his campaign, I have been concerned about the contradiction I see between Sen. Obama’s calls for change, on the one hand, versus his continued advocacy for so-called “free trade” and the “free market”, which, as I have argued before, are just marketing phrases. We need to keep asking questions (like these questions) now. I believe asking those questions will make Sen. Obama a better, stronger and, yes, a truly change president.

2 Responses to “US: Is Obama flipflopping on so-called “Free Trade”?”

  1. 1 Sean Li July 18, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Can you elaborate on: “Instead, he could have co-sponsored a ground-breaking piece of trade legislation offered by fellow Democrats–but he has not.” please?

    I’d like to look this up more myself.



  1. 1 US: Is Obama flipflopping on so-called Free Trade? - TeamstersOnline Trackback on June 20, 2008 at 9:14 am

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