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Obama's Disappointing Trade Shift

Barack Obama, June 30, 2005:

I believe that expanding trade and breaking down barriers between countries is good for our economy and for our security, for American consumers and American workers. ...

I meet these workers all across Illinois, workers whose jobs moved to Mexico or China and are now competing with their own children for jobs that pay 7 bucks an hour. In town meetings and union halls, I've tried to tell these workers the truth--that these jobs aren't coming back, that globalization is here to stay and that they will have to train more and learn more to get the new jobs of tomorrow. ...

If we are to promote free and fair trade--and we should--then we must make a national commitment to prepare every child in America with the education they need to compete in the new economy; to provide retraining and wage insurance so even if you lose your job you can train for another; to make sure worker retraining helps people without getting them caught in bureaucracy; that it helps service workers as well as manufacturing workers and encourages people to re-enter the workforce as soon as possible.

Barack Obama now:

Obama's strategy is to try to make NAFTA a central issue of the campaign and to try to draw contrasts on the issue with Clinton. ...

"Hillary Clinton believed NAFTA was a 'boon' to our economy," said one flier that the Obama campaign mailed to Ohio voters last week. A bleak-looking, abandoned factory was pictured on the mailing.

"We are going to mention NAFTA on every occasion," said one top Obama advisor, who asked that his name not be used.

This is disappointing in large part because Obama's 2005 op-ed opposing CAFTA is a model of responsible populism. Obama explained carefully that he was voting against CAFTA not because he wanted to stop trade or globalization, but because the government wasn't doing enough to compensate the losers--a step that most introductory economics textbooks just sort of assume ends up happening, but usually doesn't. The difference between that and what Obama's doing now--using NAFTA as a club against Hillary Clinton and an all-purpose bogeyman for the Rust Belt's economic difficulties--shouldn't be downplayed.

I don't mean to suggest that Clinton's stance on trade is much more nuanced. And I'm hoping that the fact that the Obama advisor wasn't willing to be quoted for attribution indicates that deep down they're sort of ashamed to be campaigning in this manner, and would govern more thoughtfully. (Much as the Washington Post editorialized of Clinton's trade rhetoric, "We suppose Ms. Clinton's remarks represent a perverse kind of good news: There's little chance that her position reflects any deeply held principle.") But it would be nice to see more of the 2005-vintage Obama and less of this year's model, particularly since he has chosen to make "straight talk" such a central theme of his campaign.

--Josh Patashnik