Is Barack Obama an economic nationalist?

Was his campaign's attack on Hillary Clinton's ties to India a macaca moment? Or a chance to tell the world how he really feels about globalization?

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 20, 2007 11:25PM (EDT)

All week long, the Indian blogosphere has been up in arms about a research memo circulated by the Obama campaign last Thursday that sharply attacked Hillary Clinton for her ties to India. A community that remembers Macaca-gate all too well was quick to see racial undertones in the memo. Obama has since attempted to thoroughly disassociate himself from the memo, saying it wasn't reviewed by senior staff, shouldn't have singled out India and Indians, was unnecessarily "caustic" and a "dumb mistake."

Some bloggers have questioned whether the explanation that senior staff hadn't reviewed the memo holds up in light of early comments made by Bill Burton, a spokesman for Obama, and David Axelrod, the campaign's "chief strategist," before Obama started disclaiming responsibility. No matter how sincerely one takes his apology, the incident reflects poorly on his campaign. But after reading the memo, what struck me was not so much the question of race, but the intensity of the attempt to trash Hillary Clinton as an evil offshoring traitor to the American working class.

Bill Clinton, without question, can be considered a proponent of globalization and expanded trade, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine Hillary Clinton governing along the same lines. But the real news value of this episode is not where Hillary Clinton might stand on the issue of trade as it is the reality that someone in the campaign thought it would be a strategically sensible idea to line Barack Obama up alongside Lou Dobbs as a fire-breathing economic nationalist.

So, what has Obama said since?

In an apology circulated directly to Indian-Americans:

I believe that your concerns with the memo are justified. To begin with, the memo did not reflect my own views on the importance of America's relationship with India. I have long believed that the best way to promote U.S. economic growth and opportunity for American workers is to continually improve the skills of our own workforce and invest in our own scientific research, technological capacity and infrastructure, rather than to try to insulate ourselves from the global economy.

As reported by the Associated Press:

"The issue of outsourcing is a genuine and important issue; but to refer to one particular country was, I think, an error and I let all of us know that we've got to be more careful about how we communicate," he said.

In an "exclusive" interview with the Indian news service Rediff:

I hope and trust that all my friends in the Indian-American community understand that it did not reflect my views, either on the complex issue of outsourcing or on my attitude towards the enormous contributions of the Indian-American community that they have made to this country."

You won't find any argument here with the proposition that outsourcing is a complex, genuine and important issue, or with the goal of improving the skills of the American workforce. But when even the thoroughly pro-free trade Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is releasing book-length reports warning that globalization is contributing to growing inequality around the world and undermining political support for trade, Obama's articulation of his "own views" leaves something to be desired.

For example, he could have been considerably more forceful in acknowledging that to truly meet the challenge of globalization without retreating into isolationism will require massively boosting social safety net protections for workers who are harmed by changing patterns of trade. To press the hot-button of economic nationalism and then retreat to a statement like "the best way to promote U.S. economic growth and opportunity for American workers is to continually improve the skills of our own workforce and invest in our own scientific research, technological capacity and infrastructure" won't satisfy anyone and misses a huge opportunity to present a platform that demonstrates real concern for workers -- not just in the U.S., but everywhere.

After all, who could more easily articulate an economic platform that incorporates the interests of workers in all nations and of all colors than the man who declared so forcefully in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address that "I am my brother's keeper"?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization Hillary Rodham Clinton How The World Works India U.s. Economy