Trade on the Trail: Into the General
(Disclosure: Global Trade Watch has no preference among the candidates.)
The general campaign is on, independent voters 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 suggests he doesn't want to unilaterally blow up NAFTA after all.
"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.
Obama is also courting labor backing today:
Obama still needs to make amends with many in the labor movement; at least a dozen AFL-CIO unions, including the powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, backed his Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The AFL-CIO allowed its unions to make their own endorsements during the primaries.
The labor federation has been critical of Obama's decision to hire economist Jason Furman as economic policy director because of his ties to corporate America and support of free trade. Obama said he would tell them Furman is experienced in presidential campaigns and adds to a wide range of economic views on his campaign.
"He's not whispering in my ear and he's not shaping my core beliefs about what is needed in the American economy," Obama told reporters Tuesday on his campaign plane. "He's one of my economists. And so I will suggest to them that looking at one staff person and getting nervous about it probably doesn't make sense."
Barack Obama waited just three days after Hillary Clinton pulled out of the race to declare, on CNBC: "Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market." Demonstrating that this is no mere spring fling, he has appointed the 37-year-old Jason Furman, one of Wal-Mart's most prominent defenders, to head his economic team. On the campaign trail, Obama blasted Clinton for sitting on the Wal-Mart board and pledged: "I won't shop there." For Furman, however, Wal-Mart's critics are the real threat: the "efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits" are creating "collateral damage" that is "way too enormous and damaging to working people and the economy ... for me to sit by idly and sing Kum Ba Ya in the interests of progressive harmony".
Obama's love of markets and his desire for "change" are not inherently incompatible. "The market has gotten out of balance," he says, and it most certainly has. Many trace this profound imbalance to the ideas of Milton Friedman, who launched a counter-revolution against the New Deal from his perch at the University of Chicago. And here there are more problems, because Obama - who taught law at Chicago for a decade - is embedded in the mindset known as the Chicago School.
Canadian officials are watching the election attentively, too. Obama, who four years ago declared NAFTA had been beneficial, recently talked about reopening NAFTA to strengthen enforcement of labor and environmental standards. McCain has been thumping Obama on that, arguing that such a step not only would hurt trade, but undermine the credibility of the United States abroad.
"You know what message that sends? That no agreement is sacred to him," McCain told reporters Thursday in Boston.
And Dick Cheney weighs in:
"Some politicians seem determined to unravel the bipartisan consensus on free trade -- a consensus epitomized by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)," said Cheney in direct reference to Obama's stated intention of renegotiating the 1994 pact between United States, Canada and Mexico if he is elected to the White House.
"In a time when even NAFTA is being called into doubt -- when candidates can draw cheers by denouncing trade deals with our next-door neighbors -- then we're at risk of going down a very destructive path," Cheney added.
In what appeared to be an underpinning of Republican Senator John McCain's pro-free trade stance in his election campaign, the vice president warned that protectionism "is the refuge of a tired, fearful nation -- and that is not the United States."
And that wily Peter Mandelson can't keep his mouth shut either:
"Who would have thought, 10 years ago, that you would hear serious U.S. presidential candidates putting NAFTA in question? Or calling into question the desirability of concluding a world trade round?" Mandelson said in prepared remarks before a business luncheon in New York.
"We need to be straight with Americans and Europeans about just how badly disengagement from the global economy would hurt their political and economic interests. And that means being honest about the extent to which protectionism is a dead end," Mandelson said.