An article from Fortune Magazine, entitled "Obama: NAFTA not so bad after all," captures the Democratic candidate walking back his previously stated positions on the controversial free-trade agreement. Touting a forthcoming interview in the magazine, Obama is said to be "toning down his populist rhetoric," and goes on to imply that "the presumptive Democratic nominee suggests he doesn't want to unilaterally blow up NAFTA after all." Not that the candidate ever said any such thing. In fact, when pressed on the matter by Tim Russert at the MSNBC debate in Cleveland, Obama said that "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."
But while Obama has repeatedly stated his intention to work within the existing NAFTA framework to get a better set of standards and safeguards, he has not made some full-circle recantation of his NAFTA criticism, as this article implies. Author Nina Easton - who, let's note, is married to Russ Schriefer, one-time media adviser to John McCain and Mitt Romney - manages this little feat of skullduggery by omitting large chunks of Obama's side of the interview and pretending that Obama's stated positions on NAFTA are new ones.
Early in the article, Easton says:
What Obama says now is that he believes in "opening up a dialogue" with trading partners Canada and Mexico "and figuring to how we can make this work for all people."
That tone stands in marked contrast to his primary campaign's anti-NAFTA fusillades.
The only problem is that Obama has repeatedly stated this and it in no way stands in contrast to any previous statements.
AP, 8/8/07: "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."
Chicago Tribune, 9/27/04: "Obama said, if elected, he would press for NAFTA's renegotiation because the current deal contains inadequate labor and environmental standards. 'As part of any current or future trade agreement negotiations, our nation must address the dislocations caused by expanded global trade,' Obama said, 'by maintaining workers' basic benefits and helping them retrain and by providing communities hit with plant closings with tools and strategies to remain viable.'"
And he has never suggested that he has a desire "to unilaterally blow up NAFTA," as Easton implies:
AP, 9/22/07: "Obama was also pressed on trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement. He said he disagrees with more liberal rivals such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who want to scrap the deal. A better approach is tougher enforcement of labor and environmental standards, he said."
Chicago Tribune, 2/26/08: "Obama, when asked whether he would repeal NAFTA, has said business relationships among the countries were now so entrenched that reversing the trade deal "would probably result in more jobs losses in the United States than job gains." Instead, he said the treaty should be amended."
Of course, Obama went to great lengths during this interview to present his position and demonstrate its consistency over time. Easton takes portions of such clarifying statements and litters them throughout the article, specifically omitting the portions that run against her overarching, "Obama has switched positions" thesis.
For example, Easton quotes Obama as saying, "The Chinese love free trade...but they are tough as nails when it comes to a bargain, right? They will resist any calls to stop manipulating their currency. It's no secret they have consistently encroached on our intellectual property and our copyright laws. ...We should make sure in our trade negotiations that our interests and our values are adequately reflected." But that portion comes from a larger response in which Obama asserts the historical consistency of his NAFTA position:
"But my core position has never changed. It's been consistent if you look all the way through. I've always been a proponent in free trade and I've always been a believer that we have to have strong environmental provisions and strong labor provisions in our trade agreements. And that we gotta be better arguers. You know the Chinese love free trade. But they are tough as nails when it comes to (inaudible). Right? I mean they will resist any calls to stop manipulating the currency. It's no secret they have consistently crouched on our intellectual property and our copyright laws. There are all sorts of non tariff barriers. Now that doesn't make them antitrade it just means they're just trying to work the systems to their advantage and my only point has been that we should make sure begin our trade negotiations that our interests and our values are adequately reflected."
Similarly, Easton salts a pair of paragraphs with several snippets from the interview, thusly:
In the Fortune interview, Obama noted that despite his support for opening markets, "there are costs to free trade" that must be recognized. He noted that under NAFTA, a more efficient U.S. agricultural industry displaced Mexican farmers, adding to the problem of illegal immigration.
We "can't pretend that those costs aren't real," Obama added. Otherwise, he added, it feeds "the protectionist sentiment and the anti-immigration sentiment that is out there in both parties."
But, once again, Easton ignores the parts of Obama's response that run against her thesis that the candidate has, only of late, decided that he would not choose "to unilaterally blow up NAFTA."
"I'm not a big believer in just doing things unilaterally; I'm a big believer in opening up a dialogue and figuring out how we can make this work for all people. And by the way, just going back to NAFTA for a second, I don't dispute that there may have been some modest aggregate benefit in terms of lowering prices on consumer goods for example. But I would also argue that not only did it have an adverse affect on certain communities that saw jobs move down to Mexico but for example our agricultural section pretty much devastated a much less efficient Mexican farming system. But from a pure economic, you know if you're just an economist looking at this in an abstract way you would say well a more efficient producer displaced a less efficient producer in Mexico, there's nothing wrong with that. As a practical matter those are millions of people in Mexico who are displaced. Many of whom now are moving up to the United States, contributing to the immigration concerns that people are feeling. And so, those human factors should be taken into account. They may not override or every single decision that we make in respect to trade, but to pretend those costs aren't there, that those costs aren't real, and my job as president to take those into account, I think, does no service to free trade. And its part of what has fed the protection incentive and the anti-immigration incentive that is out there in both parts and you know I think that if we manage trade more effectively, if we're better partners, if we are thinking about the dislocations that occurs as a consequence of it, if were true to our belief that labor and environmental standards should be a part of raising living standards around the world instead of a race to the bottom, then we can have free trade and it will be sustainable and we will have political support over the long run."
There is no doubt that Obama's positions on free trade will be hotly debated as the general election develops. But to suggest that Obama has, late of this interview, switched his positions on the issue - which makes it look as if Obama is pandering to Fortune's readership - is simply incorrect.