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.”