The day after General Motors confirmed the crisis in American manufacturing by offering early retirement packages to nearly all its remaining US workers, Barack Obama toured one of the Midwest’s largest GM plants. The senator from Illinois stood before the assembled United Auto Workers in Janesville, Wisconsin, and presented himself as something radically new: a likely Democratic presidential nominee who understands the role that flawed trade policies have played in the rapid loss of industrial jobs and who wants to make things right.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry, who in the past four presidential elections carried the banner of the party that is supposed to be on the side of American workers, Obama declared in Janesville that pacts like NAFTA and the permanent normalization of trade relations with China had failed.

“We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control…. It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington–the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it’s produced,” Obama explained. His speech reframed his approach to economic issues–which had tended to disappoint fair-trade activists, especially after he endorsed, along with Hillary Clinton, the recent Peru Free Trade Agreement. “It’s a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits but none for our environment or our workers, who’ve seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear.”

Obama certainly sounded like he was proposing a break from Clinton-Bush continuity on trade policy. But his rhetoric left much to be desired. Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur, a Toledo Democrat who has not endorsed a candidate because of her frustration with Obama and Clinton on trade, bluntly informed the Illinois senator that his remarks were not sufficient. “Barack Obama says he’s going to retrain workers. For what? There’s not a job like the ones that are being lost to be had,” says Kaptur, whose city has seen tens of thousands of industrial jobs disappear in the era of free trade. “We’ve had candidates promising retraining for decades. What we want is a candidate who says, ‘My trade policies will help workers who have jobs keep them and create new jobs for workers who need them.'”

Kaptur says this is a subtlety that blue-collar workers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other hard-hit states understand, even if Democratic strategists in Washington don’t. When Gore and Kerry talked in 2000 and 2004 about offering workers who had lost jobs because of trade deals a chance to “retrain,” they came across as either not understanding the debate or not caring about it. “This is about people’s livelihoods. They take it seriously enough to listen to what’s being said,” explains Kaptur. “It’s not enough to talk about how sorry you are about people losing jobs and think that gets you a vote. That’s being descriptive, not prescriptive. That’s telling us, ‘I feel your pain.’ We want to stop feeling the pain.”

The Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of labor, environmental, family farm and consumer groups, joined Kaptur and other key Democratic members of Congress in communicating to both the Obama and Clinton campaigns that more was needed. The CTC’s state-based affiliates have pressured the candidates to respond to detailed questionnaires on trade issues. “We know we only have a narrow window to get these candidates to make real commitments,” says CTC director Andy Gussert. “But it happens that the window is open in the states where we’ve done years of education with the voters and where the candidates know they have to address our issues.”

It also happens that the pressure has worked. Obama’s made trade a central theme of his now legendary speeches, and Clinton’s doing the same–albeit more clumsily because, as one aide to an Ohio Congressman explained in reference to her husband’s administration, “When I hear NAFTA, I think Clinton.” In Wisconsin both Obama and Clinton committed to opposing upcoming trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea and endorsed regulations on foreign investors. Obama seemed to go even further, vowing to replace the fast-track model for negotiating trade agreements–a shift that would strengthen the ability of Congress to demand protections for workers, farmers, consumers and the environment. That got the Illinois senator higher marks from many fair-trade activists, although some senior analysts with industrial unions such as the Machinists argued that Clinton–who has proposed appointing a “trade prosecutor” to enforce commitments made in agreements–has a better understanding of the intricacies of the debate. However, an actual fair trader, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, remained unimpressed. “I am troubled that both of our candidates are not as strong on this issue as they should be. They’re saying the right things now, because they have to. But this is not good enough,” says Feingold, who came close to running for the nomination on a platform that promised trade policies written for Main Street rather than Wall Street. “Once this nomination is nailed down, I am very worried that whoever the candidate is will start trying to pacify the various elements of the business community and move to the middle, and that we’re going to get nothing out of this issue.”

The senator’s fears are rooted in the bitter experience of watching Democratic nominees get the trade debate wrong–on both political and policy grounds. That’s why the CTC and its allies say they are as interested in educating the candidates about the depth of public concern regarding trade as they are about hearing specific statements from them. It’s also why Kaptur and other members of Congress who have long records of fighting both Democratic and Republican Presidents on trade have so far withheld endorsements–and superdelegate votes. “This is the one benefit of a long nominating process,” says Kaptur. “We’ve finally gotten to states where the candidates have to talk about trade. We don’t have to let them get away with things. We can finally say, ‘If a Democrat wants to win in November, he or she has to get past the generalities and start taking trade agreements as seriously as do the voters in states like this one–states that have been devastated by bad trade policies.’ ”