Obama: NAFTA not so bad after all
The Democratic nominee, in an interview with Fortune, says he wants free trade "to work for all people."
WASHINGTON (Fortune) -- The general campaign is on, independent voters are up for grabs, and Barack Obama is toning down his populist rhetoric - at least when it comes to free trade.
In an interview with Fortune to be featured in the magazine's upcoming issue, the presumptive Democratic nominee backed off his harshest attacks on the free trade agreement and indicated he didn't want to unilaterally reopen negotiations on NAFTA.
"Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," he conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA "devastating" and "a big mistake," despite nonpartisan studies concluding that the trade zone has had a mild, positive effect on the U.S. economy.
Does that mean his rhetoric was overheated and amplified? "Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don't exempt myself," he answered.
Obama says 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."
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said that Obama-as the candidate noted in Fortune's interview-has not changed his core position on NAFTA, and that he has always said he would talk to the leaders of Canada and Mexico in an effort to include enforceable labor and environmental standards in the pact.
Nevertheless, Obama's tone stands in marked contrast to his primary campaign's anti-NAFTA fusillades. The pact creating a North American free-trade zone was President Bill Clinton's signature accomplishment; but NAFTA is also the bugaboo of union leaders, grassroots activists and Midwesterners who blame free trade for the factory closings they see in their hometowns.
The Democratic candidates fought hard to win over those factions of their party, with Obama generally following Hillary Clinton's lead in setting a protectionist tone.
In February, as the campaign moved into the Rust Belt, both candidates vowed to invoke a six-month opt-out clause ("as a hammer," in Obama's words) to pressure Canada and Mexico to make concessions.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called that threat a mistake, and other leaders abroad expressed worries about their trade deals. Leading House Democrats, including Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, distanced themselves from the candidates.
Now, however, Obama says he doesn't believe in unilaterally reopening NAFTA. On the afternoon that I sat down with him to discuss the economy, Obama said he had just spoken with Harper, who had called to congratulate him on winning the nomination.
"I'm not a big believer in doing things unilaterally," Obama said. "I'm a big believer in opening up a dialogue and figuring out how we can make this work for all people."
hmmmm, phone call for Austan Goolsbee!!!!