Rahm Emanuel has been a constant in Democratic presidential administrations since he served as Bill Clinton’s neoliberal “Rhambo” in the 1990s, and now he would very much like to join the Biden administration. Emanuel was initially touted as a potential cabinet member, perhaps as secretary of transportation. Or even as US trade representative. But that didn’t happen, after intense opposition to Emanuel’s potential nomination surfaced among progressives nationally and particularly in Chicago, where he had served a scandal-plagued eight years as mayor. So now he’s angling for a major diplomatic post, despite a well-documented record of distinctly undiplomatic behavior. There’s talk of handing the former Clinton and Obama administration aide a plum ambassadorship in Beijing or Tokyo.
That would be a very bad idea. At a point when unions, environmental groups, and human rights organizations have been stressing the need for international solidarity in the face of the overwhelming challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic downturn that has extended from it, Emanuel remains an advocate for the failed free-trade policies that have harmed workers and communities in the United States and countries around the world. Putting the Wall Street–aligned fixer whom Public Citizen Global Trade Watch director Lori Wallach describes as a “corporate hack extraordinaire” in a position where he could again influence US trade policy with China. Japan, or other countries, would be “catastrophic” for human rights, worker rights, and environmental justice.
“We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again—Rahm Emanuel is a ladder-climbing hack who is unfit to serve anywhere in the Biden administration,” says People’s Action Deputy Director Bree Carlson.
That’s a blunt assessment, yet it is widely shared.
Opposition to any Emanuel nomination for any post has focused primarily on his 2011-to-’19 track record in Chicago, where he earned the label “Mayor 1%.” The details of his tenure are more than sufficient to disqualify him from consideration. “As the former mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has shown us that he is not a principled leader or person,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson has argued. “His time in public service proved to be burdened with preventable scandal and abandonment of Chicago’s most vulnerable community. How can we expect him to do better on a federal level? His actions and approach to governing are detrimental to the Biden administration and, more importantly, the American people.” Just last week, more than two dozen groups—including People’s Action, Progressive Democrats of America, the Working Families Party, RootsAction.org, and Black Youth Project 100—issued a statement opposing an ambassadorial nomination for Emanuel, in which they insist:
Emanuel’s disgraceful behavior as mayor of Chicago cannot be erased or ignored. At a time when the Democratic Party leadership has joined with most Americans in asserting that Black lives matter, it would be a travesty to elevate to an ambassadorship someone who has epitomized the attitude that Black lives do not matter.
After being elected mayor of Chicago in 2011, Emanuel presided over a scandal-plagued administration that included the closing of 49 public schools, many in Black neighborhoods. As he faced a re-election campaign, for 13 months Emanuel’s administration suppressed a horrific dashcam video showing the death of Laquan McDonald, an African-American teenager who had been shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer as he walked away from the officer. Soon after a judge ordered the city to release the video, polling found that only 17 percent of Chicagoans believed Emanuel when he said he’d never seen the video; most city residents wanted him to resign as mayor.
In addition to his Chicago record, however, there is the record of Emanuel’s tenures in the Clinton and Obama administrations, when he was an ardent advocate for Wall Street–friendly free trade policies. Dispatching an architect of the corporate globalization agendas that have devastated American manufacturing to Beijing or Tokyo at a point when the global economy of the post-pandemic era is being organized, makes no sense—for beleaguered workers in the United States, China, Japan, and rest of the world.
As a senior adviser to Clinton, Emanuel stamped a cruel brand on the administration that would haunt the Democratic Party for decades. After the Clinton presidential library’s release of Emanuel’s memos from that time, Chicago’s NBC affiliate explained that they revealed that the aide had been “urging the president to crack down on undocumented immigrants and take a stronger stand on combating crime as part of a strategy to appropriate GOP platforms for political gain.” Emanuel proposed that Clinton adopt a hard-line stance in favor of roundups, detentions, and deportations so that the president could “claim a number of industries free of illegal immigrants.”
NAFTA’s Neoliberal Point Man
At the same time that Emanuel wanted to punish immigrants who were working in meatpacking plants in the United States, he wanted to go easy on multinational corporations that were looking to rig trade policies in order to maximize profits.
It was Emanuel who was the strategist in the Clinton administration’s bitter fights for the North American Free Trade Agreement, approval of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, US entry into the World Trade Organization, and the initiation of a trade regimen with China that human rights advocates decried. In every instance, Emanuel battled unions, environmentalists. and democracy activists. Those fights divided the Democratic coalition against itself and left party leaders—including presidential nominees such as Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016—vulnerable to attacks from crudely cynical Republicans for “selling out” working-class Americans. Later, as chief of staff for the Obama administration, Emanuel continued to promote neoliberal policies. Famously, he spewed obscenities at progressives who wanted a public option in the Affordable Care Act. When union members sought more protections for American workers and domestic manufacturing at a critical stage in negotiations to prop up the auto industry, Emanuel reportedly shouted, “Fuck the UAW!”
After Emanuel left the Obama White House and returned to Chicago, Politico reported on how he served as an “unabashedly pro-trade” mayor—in an article headlined: “Chi-town opens arms to China.” He was especially outspoken in support of the Obama administration’s push for the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with member countries of the European Union, organizing mayors to support what would “amount to the biggest free-trade push in U.S. history.” He did so even as Chicago fair trade activists warned of the threat those agreements posed for US manufacturing and international human rights.
“Trade can’t be free when workers in one country are denied their basic human rights,” explained Carson Starkey, who during Emanuel’s time as mayor served as director of the Illinois Fair Trade Coalition. “We’ve seen this in US-China trade relations, with big corporations racing to relocate jobs to wherever labor is the most exploited and environmental regulations are the weakest, profiting off of brutal sweatshop working conditions. Now, amazingly, the administration is proposing an even worse Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with countries like Vietnam, where the average minimum wage is just a third of that in China’s manufacturing sectors.”
Emanuel did not always succeed in promoting free trade deals. But, even as objections to the TPP and the TTIP schemes were being raised by prominent Democrats, he defended them with his usual combination of certainty and belligerence. He traveled to Asia as an advocate for trade deals that big investors loved but unions despised. In 2018, when he visited Tokyo, he was described as a “pro-globalization” campaigner who declared, “I do believe in open trade, especially with our friends across the globe.”
The problem with that belief, which was shared by Wall Street–aligned Democrats and Republicans, was that it severely undermined the diversity of US manufacturing. Whole industries shut down and offshored production, according to an Economic Policy Institute report issued last year, which detailed how the United States has lost more than 91,000 manufacturing plants and nearly 5 million manufacturing jobs since 1997.
Unprepared for Covid-19
Offshoring at that level did not have to happen. Yes, of course, in an increasingly globalized economy, countries would trade with one another and some manufacturing facilities, and jobs would be moved. But, as Wallach noted more than a decade ago, “The wide-scale export of U.S. jobs is not inevitable, but rather is a result of our current failed trade agreements, which provide expansive new protections for U.S. firms to ship investment and jobs offshore.”
Yet, even as the factory closings mounted, Emanuel kept promoting free trade dogma, in the Clinton administration, in the private sector, as a member of Congress, as a member of the Obama administration, as a mayor, and after he left City Hall. He wasn’t alone, but he was always one of the loudest—and, often, most listened to—Democratic advocates for the billionaire-approved line on trade policy.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we saw the full impact of decades of free trade absolutism. Instead of taking steps to assure that critical personal protective equipment and other medical supplies would continue to be manufactured in the United States, the country had for years embraced trade policies that, as Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) noted, had actually encouraged firms to move production overseas. “That’s why we didn’t have the protective equipment we needed,” said Brown.
With Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Brown explained in a recent letter to the Biden administration that the pandemic had “demonstrated the risks of long foreign supply chains. The United States has endured shortages for crucial items like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), ventilators, and chemical inputs for pharmaceuticals due to lack of domestic industries in those products.”
This wasn’t hard to anticipate. During the trade debates of the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, Brown and Baldwin and dozens of other principled Democrats had warned of concerns about free trade policies that were dictated by investors rather than the public interest. Unfortunately, Emanuel was on the other side of those debates. And there is no reason to believe that Emanuel, who during the 2020 campaign was busy writing Wall Street Journal columns chastising progressives and hyping the idea of building alliances with “Biden Republicans,” has changed his tune.