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Monday, March 03, 2008

Obama's NAFTA Rhetoric

After the last Democratic debate, we showed reports from Canada's CTV alleged that contrary to Obama's assertions at the debate regarding NAFTA where he said "I will make sure we renegotiate. 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," that a "senior member" of Obama's campaign team has spoken with the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. to reassure him that Obama's anti-NAFTA rhetoric was not to be taken seriously.

Debate transcript here.

What is NAFTA:

NAFTA eliminated the majority of tariffs on products traded among the United States, Canada and Mexico, and gradually phased out other tariffs over a 15-year period. Restrictions were to be removed from many categories, including motor vehicles, computers, textiles, and agriculture. The treaty also protects intellectual property rights (patents, copyrights, and trademarks), and outlines the removal of investment restrictions among the three countries. The treaty is trilateral in nature; the terms apply equally to all countries, in all areas except agriculture, in which stipulations, tariff reduction phase-out periods, and protection of selected industries, were negotiated on a bilateral basis. Provisions regarding worker and environmental protection were added later as a result of supplemental agreements signed in 1992.

NAFTA was an expansion of the earlier Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement of 1988. NAFTA is a treaty under international law, though under United States law, it is classed as a congressional-executive agreement rather than a treaty.(Reference)

Within the last month, a top staff member for Obama's campaign telephoned Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the United States, and warned him that Obama would speak out against NAFTA, according to Canadian sources.

The Obama team denied those reports, as did the Canadian officials.

CTV followed up by reconfirming their original story and providing more information about the communications between Obama's senior campaign staff member and the Canadian officials as well as naming Austan Goolsbee, Obama's senior economic adviser, as that "senior member".

The frontrunning presidential candidates all weighed in on the new controversy, with Republican John McCain issuing his criticism of Obama by saying, "I don't think it's appropriate to go to Ohio and tell people one thing while your aide is calling the Canadian Ambassador and telling him something else. I certainly don't think that's straight talk."

Hillary Clinton issued her own press release, found on her website:

I think it’s somewhat disturbing that he would say one thing in Ohio and then have his campaign send a private signal to a foreign government which is presenting exactly the opposite of what he’s been saying in Ohio. This is part of a pattern and I think it’s a pattern that deserves closer examination. NAFTA is a really critical issue to the people of Ohio. I have not just talked about the problems with NAFTA; I’ve put forth a very specific plan about what I would do to correct them. I made it clear in the debate that I would tell both Canada and Mexico that we would opt-out if they did not negotiate. I feel that strongly about it. We’ve had it for 14 years. There are parts of the country that are doing well and other parts that are really suffering. And we should make this as much of a win/win for America as possible. So there’s no doubt about where I stand or where my campaign stands."

Obama's campaign spokesman, Bill Burton issued an immediate clarification, via Obama's website:

The news reports on Obama's position on NAFTA are inaccurate and in no way represent Senator Obama’s consistent position on trade. When Senator Obama says that he will forcefully act to make NAFTA a better deal for American workers, he means it. Both Canada and Mexico should know that, as president, Barack Obama will do what it takes to create and protect American jobs and strengthen the American economy -- that includes amending NAFTA to include labor and environmental standards. We are currently reaching out to the Canadian embassy to correct this inaccuracy.

Today we see reports of a Canadian memo recounting the very meeting that CTV reported on, which started this whole, NAFTAGate issue. In that ABC report it says that Barack Obama's senior economic policy adviser privately told Canadian officials to view the debate in Ohio over trade as "political positioning."

Goolsbee disputes the "characterization" in that memo of his meeting with the Canadian officials and denies that the memo was quotuing him correctly.

The memo was written by Joseph DeMora, who works for the consulate and attended the meeting.

According to the memo Goolsbee cautioned that this messaging (Obama's debate comments about NAFTA) should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.

Obama has responded directly to the Clinton campiagn's criticisms of his words at the debate compared to the not so secret communications between Goolsbee and the Canadian official, by reminding supporters of Clinton's previous positions on NAFTA.

"Yesterday, Sen. Clinton also said I'm wrong to point out that she once supported NAFTA. But the fact is, she was saying great things about NAFTA until she started running for president. A couple years after it passed, she said NAFTA was a 'free and fair trade agreement' and that it was 'proving its worth.' And in 2004, she said, 'I think, on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York state and America."

Ohio is very ambiguous about NAFTA as they have seen many jobs lost as they watched those jobs go overseas because of the NAFTA trade agreement, which is one reason why Clinton and Obama brought the discussion into the last Democratic debate and yet both of them made statements which do not coincide with their communications and/or previous positions about NAFTA.

NAFTA was signed into law under Bill Clinton's presidency and defended by Hillary Clinton at the time and Obama's campaign senior official implying to the Canadian government that his words regarding NAFTA were no more than "political positioning" has both candidates on the hotseat in Ohio.

The problem with constantly trying to one up each other in the debates is that the words have ramifications with our allies across the world.

It would behoove candidates from both sides of the political aisle to remember that it is not just America that is watching and listening to them, but the world.

[Update] Statement by the Canadian Embassy:

Washington, D.C., March 3, 2008 — The Canadian Embassy and our Consulates General regularly contact those involved in all of the Presidential campaigns and, periodically, report on these contacts to interested officials. In the recent report produced by the Consulate General in Chicago, there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect.

The people of the United States are in the process of choosing a new President and are fortunate to have strong and impressive candidates from both political parties. Canada will not interfere in this electoral process. We look forward, however, to working with the choice of the American people in further building an unparalleled relationship with a close friend and partner.

In other words.... leave us out of your screwed up political games, please.