The issue of trade policy — which should be at the center of any discussion about renewing the American economy — will finally garner some serious attention Thursday, as President Obama makes his first international trip to Canada.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, conflicting signals from the Obama camp with regard to how a new administration might renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement — which includes the United States, Canada and Mexico — complicated the Democratic contender’s run.
At multiple turns, Obama and his aides seemed to send mixed signals. Obama’s campaign criticized his Democratic primary rival, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, for her past role in advocating for NAFTA and her broader support of multilateral trade agreements. And Obama signaled, in major speeches –and even more aggressively in direct-mail advertising campaigns in industrial and agricultural caucus and primary states — that he was determined to reframe existing agreements to protect workers and the environment.
“NAFTA’s shortcomings were evident when signed and we must now amend the agreement to fix them,” declared Obama, during a primary campaign season in which he outlined detailed plans to rewrite the trade deal.
Then came several rounds of Canadian news reports revealing that an Obama aide, senior economic adviser Austin Goolsbee — who now serves as chief economist and staff director for the new administration’s economic recovery advisory board — had supposedly informed representatives of Canada rigidly-conservative, pro-NAFTA government that Obama was merely posturing in order to secure union support and blue-collar votes.
Even more unsettling was an interview Obama gave to Fortune magazine, after he had secured the nomination, in which he seemed to confirm the Goolsbee line. “Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified…” the candidate said, seeming to indicate that he would not even consider following through on a primary-season pledge to use an opt-out clause in the trade agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico to demand changes that would be more favorable to workers, farmers and the environment in all three countries.