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March 02, 2010

Is There an Outbreak of Amnesia at USTR?

During the presidential campaign, Obama made it clear that he intended to renegotiate NAFTA to include enforceable environmental and labor rights provisions in the main text of the agreement.  The USTR’s 2010 Trade Policy Agenda, released yesterday, entirely lacked any plans to fulfill this crucial campaign promise.

When President Obama was campaigning for office, the only “r” verb he used on NAFTA was “renegotiate,” coupled with a friendly “opt out.” In contrast, USTR's report uses the verbs “review” and “recalibrate,” but then only to refer to actions they promised to take but still haven't taken. On NAFTA’s severe environmental and labor shortcomings, the report only stated that NAFTA’s central oversight body, comprised of officials from each country’s trade negotiating body, would “strengthen its relationship” with the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation and the North American Commission for Labor Cooperation, which are bodies established under NAFTA whose role is mostly limited to releasing reports about the labor and environmental effects of NAFTA. They have no enforcement capabilities, which Obama heavily criticized.

It’s not like Obama whispered his position on NAFTA to labor unions and environmentalists in private meetings.  He was loud and clear about his plan to renegotiate NAFTA, proclaiming it several times in the televised presidential debates.  In a January 2008 debate, he said that “it is absolutely true that NAFTA was a mistake.” Obama reminded us that his position on NAFTA has been consistent during a February 2008 debate:

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, you did in 2004 talk to farmers and suggest that NAFTA had been helpful. The Associated Press today ran a story about NAFTA, saying that you have been consistently ambivalent towards the issue. Simple question: Will you, as president, say to Canada and Mexico, "This has not worked for us; we are out"? 

SEN. OBAMA: I will make sure that we renegotiate, in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about. And I think actually Senator Clinton's answer on this one is right. I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced. And that is not what has been happening so far.

That is something that I have been consistent about. I have to say, Tim, with respect to my position on this, when I ran for the United States Senate, the Chicago Tribune, which was adamantly pro-NAFTA, noted that, in their endorsement of me, they were endorsing me despite my strong opposition to NAFTA.

In the Democratic candidates’ debate in August 2007, Obama had a sense of urgency in his voice when he discussed his position on NAFTA:

MR. OLBERMANN: As we continue -- scrap NAFTA, Senator Obama, or fix it?

SEN. OBAMA: I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president of Canada to try to amend NAFTA because I think that we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now. And it should reflect the basic principle that our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street, it should also be good for Main Street.

At the December 13, 2007 debate among the Democratic candidates, Obama declared:

Well, there's no doubt that NAFTA needs to be amended. And I've already said that I would contact the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Canada, to make sure that the labor and environmental agreements are actually enforceable in the same way that patent protections and other things that are important to corporate America are enforceable.

Obama did not waiver in his position on NAFTA as he campaigned through the general election.  In the final debate between McCain and Obama, just twenty days before the election, Obama reiterated:

And NAFTA doesn't have -- did not have enforceable labor agreements and environmental agreements, and what I said was we should include those and make them enforceable in the same way that we should enforce rules against China manipulating its currency to make our exports more expensive and their exports to us cheaper.

Exchange of tax information

There’s still plenty of time for the USTR to begin renegotiating NAFTA.  Let’s hope that they soon remember the President’s position on NAFTA.

UPDATE (3/3/10):

President Obama's position on necessary changes to NAFTA isn't limited to adding enforceable labor and environmental provisions. He also wants to remove the outrageous investor-state lawsuit provisions in NAFTA that can challenge public-interest laws.  In a response to the Texas Fair Trade Coalition in March 2008, Obama said, "we should amend NAFTA to make clear that fair laws and regulations written to protect citizens in any of the three countries cannot be overridden simply at the request of foreign investors."

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