The message that President Obama brought to Milwaukee, a city devastated by free-trade driven deindustrialization, was a sound one—up to a point.
But the point fell very short of where a president who wants to level the economic playing field should stand.
Obama’s Wisconsin speech eschewed any discussion of the brutal battle over the future of organized labor that has played out in the state since last February, when Governor Scott Walker (who skipped Wednesday’s factory visit) attacked collective bargaining rights. That was frustrating, but hardly surprising. Obama has kept the Wisconsin union fight at arms length from the start, avoiding visiting the state from the time Walker launched his initiative until a year and a day after the first major demonstrations.
At the same time, the president said things in Milwaukee that mattered. For instance, he embraced the premise—and the principle—that there is a vital role that government can and should play in promoting job growth in general and the renewal of manufacturing in particular.
Visiting the Master Lock Company factory, a United Auto Workers represented plant that has boomed since bringing production back from overseas, Obama said: “Right now we have an excellent opportunity to bring manufacturing back—but we have to seize it. My message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed.”
Presidents have been asking business leaders to bring factories and jobs back to the United States for two decades—since then-President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich ushered in a new era of American industrial decline with their joint advocacy on behalf of free-trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and what would eventually become the permanent normalization of trade with China.
Since Clinton, Gingrich and their allies succeeded in shifting enacting and implementing the free-trade agenda about which they—and their generous donors of Wall Street—were so enthusiastic, US manufacturing has been badly battered. From 1999 to 2009, the period before the most recent recession, the Uniuted States shed 5.8 million manufacturing jobs. That was at a time when successive presidents provided generous tax breaks for businesses and cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans who are supposedly “job creators.”