First Barack Obama promised that we would unilaterally renegotiate NAFTA to change trade across the Canadian and Mexican borders. Then Canadian broadcaster CTV reported that Obama aide Austan Goolsbee secretly assured Canada that Obama had engaged in populist rhetoric to exploit the “protectionist sentiment” in the Midwest. Obama at first said that Goolsbee had been “misquoted”, but then later acknowledged that he used “overheated rhetoric” on trade issues in order to drum up votes in the Rust Belt.
Where does Obama really stand, then? In the spot where he can laugh at the bitter, small-town clingers who bought his populist pap:
President Obama warned on Thursday against a “strong impulse” toward protectionism while the world suffers a global economic recession and said his election-year promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement on behalf of unions and environmentalists will have to wait.
Obama made the comments as he stood with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his first trip abroad as president. The two pledged cooperation on efforts to stimulate the economy, fight terrorism in Afghanistan and develop clean energy technology.
In a joint news conference, Obama said he wants to find a way to keep his campaign pledge to toughen labor and environmental standards — and told Harper so — but stressed that nothing should disrupt the free flow of trade between neighbors.
“Now is a time where we’ve got to be very careful about any signals of protectionism,” the president said. “Because, as the economy of the world contracts, I think there’s going to be a strong impulse on the part of constituencies in all countries to see if we — they can engage in beggar-thy-neighbor policies.”
Once again, this is an expiration date I can respect, but I’m hardly the target audience for Deadbeatonomics. The people who elected Obama did so while buying into his protectionist posing. NAFTA and CAFTA are two big shibboleths among this crowd, and they finally had someone in the White House that would make major changes and block globalization — or so they thought. It took Obama all of four weeks to abandon his pledge to the populist masses, without any serious pressure from our NAFTA partners, whose assessment of Obama was much more on target than that of these voters.
And Obama made Canada his first foreign visit, underscoring the importance of free trade with our North American partner. I’d call that a clear repudiation of his campaign rhetoric.
I’m actually encouraged by this move, not surprisingly. The last thing we need is another Smoot-Hawley move, and Obama’s warning about protectionism shows he understands that. He has already signaled that any “Buy American” Porkulus restrictions (which got greatly watered down) will get ignored in its implementation.
Of course, given the nature of Obama’s campaign promises, we’re more likely to like the expiration dates than Obama’s supporters. I wonder how many will be left after another month of reversals.