There is no question that the United States is in a trade war.
And it is losing.
A country that month after month after month records trade deficits in the range of $50 billion to $60 billion–astronomical levels of imbalance between what is spent on imports versus what is earned from exports–is failing to compete, or even to function, in the global economy. And it certainly is not influencing the shape of that economy for the betterment of workers at home or abroad.
Barack Obama seemed to recognize this fact as a candidate for president.
But the man who just nominated radical free-trader Judd Gregg to serve as his Secretary of Commerce seems to be forgetting the factory workers he promised to protect as a candidate.
Appearing on Fox News, Obama veered dramatically off course after he was asked about the so-called “Buy America” provisions in his stimulus plan. Adopting the conservative network’s preferred language, the president replied: “I agree that we can’t send a protectionist message. I want to see what kind of language we can work on this issue. I think it would be a mistake, though, at a time when worldwide trade is declining, for us to start sending a message that somehow we’re just looking after ourselves and not concerned with world trade.”
Obama is smarter than that.
At least he was when he was running for president against John McCain — the Arizona senator who, ironically, or is it tragically, has proposed an amendment to the stimulus bill that would strike the “Buy America” provisions from which Obama is distancing himself.
Obama used to understand that it is entirely possible, and appropriate, to “look after ourselves” while at the same time being “concerned with world trade.”
In fact, every country does — including the United States.
The only issues is how we define “ourselves.”
It all comes down to the Wall Street versus Main Street debate that was so central to the 2008 presidential campaign.
Bill Clinton and George Bush defined “ourselves” as a narrow circle of Wall Street traders, speculators and multinational investors — all of whom gave very generous contributions to friendly Democrats and Republicans.
Supporters of “Buy America” provisions in the stimulus plan– which would use the massive infusions of U.S. money into the economy to encourage domestic job creation — define “ourselves” differently. For them, it’s about Main Street. They are thinking of unemployed Pennsylvania construction workers who need jobs and of Ohio steel workers who still have jobs but fear losing them. They are thinking of Iowa farm families that are having a hard time getting the loans to plant this year’s crop and of Alabama small business owners who are trying to hold their own against unfair competition from WalMart super centers that pack their shelves with cheap imports from countries where environmental and food safety regulations are laxer than those applied in the U.S.
“We have a responsibility to taxpayers to use their dollars to support American jobs,” explains Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a veteran global human rights campaigner who as a member of the House and Senate has long been one of the most consistent and concerned internationalists in Congress.
Brown and other leading supporters of the “Buy America” provisions in the stimulus bill are not wide-eyed nationalists who hate foreigners and seek to practice crude protectionism. In fact, they are unbought-and-unbossed members of Congress, the trade unionists, farm organizations, consumer advocates and others who form the fair-trade movement that has been in the forefront of the campaign for a new global trading system that promotes sustainability, environmentally-sound practices and human rights. They are concerned about workers and farmers in the United States, but they are also concerned about workers and farmers in the countries with which the United States trades.
By any and every measure, they are dramatically more concerned about exploited workers in the developing world than the free-trade absolutists who have encouraged agricultural policies and food-speculation schemes that have forced small farmers off the land in Latin America, African and Asian countries, inflated food prices and created hunger crises in dozens of countries.
Obama needs to rethink, fast.
He could start by rereading the speeches he gave on the campaign trail about the need to stop negotiating trade deals 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 uttered those words almost a year ago in Janesville, Wisconsin, at a General Motors plant that has since closed.
In that same speech, the candidate promised that an Obama administration would “end the tax breaks for companies who ship our jobs overseas, and we will give those breaks to companies who create good jobs with decent wages right here in America.”
That, whether he likes it or not, is a “Buy America” commitment.
It is this commitment he made as a candidate.
It is this commitment he must keep as president.