In an earlier post, I took a close look at Obama and Clinton's positions on trade and concluded that they are nearly identical, except that I couldn't find any position from Obama on the pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea that Clinton opposes.
Now that Obama looks likely to be the nominee, his views on trade are getting new scrutiny, so it seems like a good time to revisit the issue and offer my own thoughts on what a progressive trade policy should look like.
First, I missed earlier this AP article from last October which says that Obama opposes the South Korea trade accord. But there's also this more recent statement in which he says that he has concerns but doesn't say he'll definitely vote against the accord:
The U.S.-Korea economic relationship has also benefited both nations and deepened our ties. I look forward as well to supporting ways to increase our bilateral trade and investment ties through agreements paying proper attention to our key industries and agricultural sectors, such as autos, rice, and beef, and to protection of labor and environmental standards. Regrettably,the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement does not meet this standard.(Thanks to the Custom House blog for pointing these out.)
Greg Mankiw says that it is an open question "whether Barack Obama is going to align himself with the economic centrists in the Democratic party or with the populists on the far left of the party. A key litmus test is trade, and so far it does not look good." Similarly, a couple Foreign Policy magazine bloggers seem to think that Obama is taking a sudden left turn on trade. (One of the FP bloggers claims incoherently that Obama wants to shove "protectionist agreements" - huh? - "down our trading partners throats.")
In my read, however, Obama's been quite consistent on trade. Indeed, if you look at my earlier post, you that his public statements on trade look very similar to what he's saying now. Here's what he said in his recent economic policy speech:
It’s also time to look to the future and figure out how to make trade work for American workers. I won’t stand here and tell you that we can – or should – stop free trade. We can’t stop every job from going overseas. But I also won’t stand here and accept an America where we do nothing to help American workers who have lost jobs and opportunities because of these trade agreements. And that’s a position of mine that doesn’t change based on who I’m talking to or the election I’m running in.I read this as just a statement that trade agreements should include strong environmental and labor protections and compensation for those who lose out, which is basically the standard center-left position. He's tossed out some criticism of NAFTA, but that doesn't signal to me that he's going to be an anti-trader. (Unlike Clinton, he's never called for a freeze on new trade agreements.)
... when I am President, I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers.
What is missing in Obama's position on trade--and indeed in the entire American dialogue on the issue--is any discussion of what trade means for developing countries. For many countries, trade is the way to achieving the economic growth needed to life their citizens out of poverty. Leaders and citizens of those countries see access to the U.S. market as crucial to progress.
The Colombia case is particularly acute because the country has suffered immensely fighting on the front lines of the Americans' drug war, with cocaine money fueling not only the drug cartels themselves, but also two armed groups--the guerrillas and paramilitaries--who have long since abandoned any political or legitimate goals and become simply organized criminal organizations dedicated to the drug trade and kidnapping. The current Colombian government, having made great strides in demobilizing the paramilitaries and isolating the guerrillas, is desperate to show some payoff for the people of Colombia, and the trade agreement with the U.S. is seen by many Colombians as the way forward. This is why Clinton's opposition to the Colombia trade deal is widely known in Colombia and has even criticized by the country's president.
Back when I was advising Howard Dean--who had positions similar to Obama's--I argued that Dean should be more pro-active in his trade position. At the time, Bush was pushing for a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Why not, I said, a Fair Trade Agreement of the Americas that would embrace trade agreements with serious labor and environmental provisions? The agreement could be a blueprint for shared prosperity for the continent, and would be embraced by the center-left governments of Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina. Obviously, I lost that argument, but I still think it's ultimately the right approach.
The signature Democratic sentiment is, in my view, "We're all in this together." Obama's great promise is that like Kennedy and LBJ, he can speak to many Americans who might not otherwise see themselves as part of that "we" and sweep them in the feeling that they, too, have a responsibility and a desire to share in making their country a better place. I hope that Obama as President--if not on the campaign trail--aims to take this message a step higher, to see the "we" embracing all of mankind, and that expanding trade with developing countries becomes part of this vision.
UPDATE: See this new post here.