Obama Should Stay Tough on Trade

by Mark Engler
There is much to be said about Obama’s centrist positioning on a number of issues before the Democratic convention, and I was happy to see the topic being widely discussed on-line. My own view is that if leaning a little toward the right during the campaign was sure to help him win the general election and launch a truly progressive presidency, I wouldn’t mind it much. However, it is far from certain that watering down his positions is a recipe for success. And based on previous Democratic administrations, we have reason to worry about whether the nominee will recover his backbone and resolve if elected. This is especially true on trade issues–which is why I wanted to take up the subject in the article below.

The general elections are not time for an embrace of the “corporate globalization” agenda for the Americas.

Speaking at a February campaign rally, Senator Barack Obama decried “leaders [who] change their positions on trade with the politics of the moment.” He argued, “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.”

These words hold as true in the general election as they did in the primaries, when grassroots demands for a trade policy that truly respects workers’ rights and protects the environment made the topic a hot campaign issue. Yet today the presumptive Democratic nominee risks backsliding into a business-as-usual advocacy of corporate globalization for the hemisphere.

In a June interview with Fortune magazine, Obama moved away from his earlier denunciations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Queried about his comments characterizing the agreement as “devastating” and “a big mistake,” Obama said, “sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified.” The candidate then softened his past proposal to renegotiate NAFTA, saying that he would merely favor “opening up a dialogue” with Canada and Mexico.

Obama also came under criticism this summer from labor advocates for appointing as his top economic aide Jason Furman, an economist who has defended “free trade” policy and aligned himself with economically conservative sectors of the Democratic Party.

These signs are troubling, because the arguments made during the Democratic primaries were not only accurate – they are too rarely voiced within a Washington establishment that seems oblivious to how pro-corporate economics have adversely affected working people both in this country and abroad.

There is good reason to believe that NAFTA – and the broader agenda it represents — was indeed a big mistake. President Clinton promised that the agreement would bolster a trade surplus with Mexico. However, we now have a trade deficit with the country that soared to a record $74.3 billion in 2007. He promised that labor and environmental concerns would be fairly addressed by NAFTA’s “side agreements.” In truth, those who have inspected the maquiladora zone in northern Mexico, such as journalist David Bacon, author of The Children of NAFTA, have found wanton environmental and human rights abuses.

These are among the reasons why 56 percent of respondents in a new Rasmussen poll from June said that NAFTA needs to be reworked, while only 16 percent thought it should not be. As the firm reported, voters “in every age group, income level, range of education and political category overwhelmingly believe it needs to be renegotiated.”

The Bush administration hopes to expand “free trade” economics by ratifying a trade agreement with Colombia by the end of the year. During the primaries, Senator Hillary Clinton criticized the deal, citing Colombia’s “history of suppression and targeted killings of labor organizers.” Thankfully, Obama has also voiced opposition to the accord.

In early July, Senator John McCain traveled to Colombia, a country he has dubbed “a beacon of hope in [the] region,” to tout the potential trade deal. In reality, his trip only highlighted the disaster that is current U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. McCain was forced to lavish praise on the dubious achievements of the Colombian government in large part because he has so few other allies to point to. He would likely have been greeted by mass protests had he visited virtually any other nation on the South American continent.

Countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay have elected progressive leaders in past years and have asserted a greater level of independence from the White House. They have done so not because of the machinations of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, as the Bush administration would like us to believe, but rather because the “free trade” dictates promoted by Washington in recent decades have created huge inequalities in their societies and failed to serve the majority of their peoples.

By answering the demands of the American people for a new type of trade policy, a President Obama would have the chance to both attend to the needs of working people in this country and improve the United States’ relations with its Southern neighbors. But only by avoiding a retreat into corporate globalization will the candidate honor his campaign’s much-needed call for change.

Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the web site Democracy Uprising

The op-ed above is used with the author’s permission.  It origanally  ran in Engler’s  hometown paper, the Des Moines Register . It is also available at Foreign Policy In Focus...

If you haven’t picked it up yet, check out Mark’s excellent  new book, How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy. It is available at your local bookstore or on-line from Powell’s or Amazon

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