The audacity of free trade

One month after NAFTA-gate, it's time to look back and see what exactly Barack Obama said about trade, in "The Audacity of Hope"

By Andrew Leonard
Published March 31, 2008 11:02PM (EDT)

Was it only a month ago that NAFTA-gate exploded all over Barack Obama and sunk any small chance he might have had of minimizing Hillary Clinton's margin of victory in Ohio? It seems like a lifetime gone by, centuries before the Age of Jeremiah Wright and the great Bosnian sniper fiasco. But what's really amazing is that, as far as I recall, during that whole frenzy of trade-related economic posturing by both candidates, nobody in the blogosphere thought to go back and see exactly what Obama said about trade and jobs in his book, "The Audacity of Hope."

On Sunday, Jonathan Dingel addressed this sad state of affairs in his blog Trade Diversion, and uploaded the relevant passages from pages 172-176 of the paperback edition.

The entirety of Obama's comments, along with Dingel's analysis, are worth reading in full. But for the purposes of How the World Works, here's the meat:

We can try to slow globalization, but we can't stop it. The U.S. economy is now so integrated with the rest of the world, and digital commerce so widespread, that it's hard to even imagine, much less enforce, an effective regime of protectionism. A tariff on imported steel may give temporary relief to U.S. steel producers, but it will make every U.S. manufacturer that uses steel in its products less competitive on the world market...

I told the President that I believed in the benefits of trade... But I said that resistance to CAFTA had less to do with the specifics of the agreement and more to do with the growing insecurities of the American worker. Unless we found strategies to allay those fears, and sent a strong signal to American workers that the federal government was on their side, protectionist sentiment would only grow...

I ended up voting against CAFTA... My vote gave me no satisfaction, but I felt it was the only way to register a protest against what I considered to be the White House's inattention to the losers from free trade.

Such sentiments are considerably more muted than the rhetoric Obama employed while stumping his way through Ohio, or that he is likely to deliver as he works his way through Pennsylvania. He probably isn't emphasizing, right now, how little "satisfaction" he took from voting against CAFTA. But his point is clear: free trade is a political albatross in the United States because the "losers" feel screwed by a government that doesn't appear to care. You can be pro-trade and still appreciate that reality.

Andrew Leonard

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

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