A number of bloggers and others have been talking about Barack Obama's views on trade recently. Many seem to feel that he is moving towards a "populist" view on trade (some make this point approvingly, others disapprovingly).
Examples of those in favor of a populist approach include David Sirota, who cites some of Obama's recent statements and says that Obama's rhetoric is "encouraging" and that "it's good politics for Obama to put our lobbyist-written trade policy on trial in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania."
Examples of those opposed include Greg Mankiw, who wonders "whether Barack Obama is going to align himself with the economic centrists in the Democratic party or with the populists on the far left of the party," and concludes that "so far it does not look good." He also notes that Obama (and Clinton) have made remarks that "dis" NAFTA. And the Washington Post complains, "On economics, Mr. Obama goes populist."
Others point to mailers the Obama campaign have sent out which state that "[o]nly Barack Obama consistently opposed NAFTA."
Trying to sort through statements made in a political campaign can be challenging, to put it mildly, but given that Obama has become the betting favorite to be the next President, I thought it might be worth spending some time on this.
So what has Obama actually been saying on trade? Here are some recent remarks:
... A few hours northeast of here is the city of Manitowoc [MAN-a-ta-WOC]. For over a century, it was the home of Mirro manufacturing - a company that provided thousands of jobs and plenty of business. In 2003, Mirro closed its doors for good after losing thousands of jobs to Mexico.
But in the last few years, something extraordinary has happened. Thanks to the leadership of Governor Doyle and Mayor Kevin Crawford, Manitowoc has re-trained its workers and attracted new businesses and new jobs. Orion Energy Systems works with companies to reduce their electricity use and carbon emissions. And Tower Tech is now making wind turbines that are being sold all over the world. Hundreds of people have found new work, and unemployment has been cut in half.
It’s also time to look to the future and figure out how to make trade work for American workers. I won’t stand here and tell you that we can – or should – stop free trade. We can’t stop every job from going overseas. But I also won’t stand here and accept an America where we do nothing to help American workers who have lost jobs and opportunities because of these trade agreements. And that’s a position of mine that doesn’t change based on who I’m talking to or the election I’m running in.
You know, in the years after her husband signed NAFTA, Senator Clinton would go around talking about how great it was and how many benefits it would bring. Now that she’s running for President, she says we need a time-out on trade. No one knows when this time-out will end. Maybe after the election.
I don’t know about a time-out, but I do know this – when I am President, I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers. And I’ll pass the Patriot Employer Act that I’ve been fighting for ever since I ran for the Senate – we will end the tax breaks for companies who ship our jobs overseas, and we will give those breaks to companies who create good jobs with decent wages right here in America.
we know that the status quo in Washington just won't do. Not this time. Not this year. We can't keep playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expect a different result – because it's a game that ordinary Americans are losing....
It's a game where trade deals like NAFTA ship jobs overseas and force parents to compete with their teenagers to work for minimum wage at Wal-Mart. That's what happens when the American worker doesn't have a voice at the negotiating table, when leaders change their positions on trade with the politics of the moment, and that's why we need a President who will listen to Main Street – not just Wall Street; a President who will stand with workers not just when it's easy, but when it's hard.
Finally, I just saw him speaking in Ohio, where he said something along these lines: "I want to amend existing trade agreements to insert provisions ensuring high labor, environmental and safety standards. ... We need to enforce existing trade agreements to ensure that other countries are playing fair."
What to make of all this? Obama has been very critical of NAFTA, and is using this to distinguish himself from Clinton. There is a distinction, he says, between himself (who opposed NAFTA) and Clinton, whose husband championed it (and, allegedly, she said some positive things about it as well). Clearly, Obama is trying to make some inroads with John Edwards supporters, as Ben Muse notes here.
But, importantly, Obama is not against all trade agreements or against free trade in principle, as he has made clear. He has supported the U.S.-Peru FTA, partly because of the stronger labor and environmental protections it contains. And while he has criticized trade agreements such as the proposed U.S.-Korea FTA, he seems to oppose them more on the specifics of the agreements than on any general principle against trade agreements. As possible support for this view, Ben Muse points out Obama's recent statements on the U.S-Korea FTA:
The U.S.-Korea economic relationship has also benefited both nations and deepened our ties. I look forward as well to supporting ways to increase our bilateral trade and investment ties through agreements paying proper attention to our key industries and agricultural sectors, such as autos, rice, and beef, and to protection of labor and environmental standards. Regrettably,the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement does not meet this standard.
Ben then notes: "There seems to be an implied commitment to engage with the Koreans to seek new trade liberalizing agreements."
Obama seems to be walking a very fine line here. He is trying to fire up the labor union/anti-corporate wing of the Democratic party, talking tough on trade so as to pull in some Edwards voters. But at the same time, he is not opposing trade agreements to the extent that Edwards did. Rather, he makes explicit statements in favor of free trade, and he supports individual trade agreements as long as they include certain substantive provisions and get sufficient market access from negotiating partners. In my view, the first quote above is important to understanding his position. I take his point here as being that trade agreements might cause short-term job loss, but that doesn't have to mean the collapse of communities when factories shut down. Things can be rebuilt if a proper response is taken.
So how to sum all this up? There is little doubt that Obama's anti-NAFTA rhetoric will continue through the primaries in Ohio (Mar 4), and will probably be maintained for the Pennsylvania (Apr 22) and Indiana (May 6) primaries. But I don't think this rhetoric matches very well with the reality of his positions. The way I see it, while he may oppose NAFTA as currently written, he supports similar trade agreements that differ from NAFTA in only minor ways.