On Canada Trip, Obama Floats a Discredited NAFTA Canard

03/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama: Economic Crisis May Delay NAFTA Negotiations

President Obama made a U.S.-led renegotiation of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) labor and environmental standards a central promise of his campaign. But asked today if he plans to start negotiations during his Thursday visit to Canada, Mr. Obama suggested that economic duress may postpone the NAFTA plans.

"There are a lot of sensitivities right now because of the huge decline in world trade," Mr. Obama told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

This is troubling on two levels. First and foremost, we need to renegotiate NAFTA to put labor and environmental standards into the agreement so that they are truly enforceable. We protect pharmaceutical patents, intellectual property and copyrights in NAFTA - that is, we protect corporate rights in the agreement, and we need to protect human/environmental rights too, just as Obama promised during the campaign.

But even more upsetting is the broader ideology Obama seems to be espousing in his rationale for potentially delaying systemic trade renegotiations.

Though he reluctantly went on to say he thinks labor and environmental protections need to be put into NAFTA, the way he structured his comments - specifically, the way he juxtaposed economic growth against reformed trade - seems to subscribe to the discredited concept that making trade rules more fair somehow at odds with economic growth . Oddly, he's implying this at the very same time he has said worker rights (i.e. The Employee Free Choice Act) and environmental protection (for example, investing in green jobs) are key to long-term economic growth here at home.

Of course, the idea that basic environmental and worker rights in trade agreements are bad for the economy has no actual basis in data or fact. It's all free-trade theology - but certainly not "pragmatism" and certainly not based in any concrete evidence. This theology asks us to believe that protectionism for patents and for (as Dean Baker repeatedly points out) professional jobs is great for economic growth at a time of crisis, but the same protectionism for human rights and the environment would exacerbate the economic crisis.

Where is this theology coming from? Likely from the Team of Zombies. Obama has put the same free-trade fundamentalists in his government that originally crafted and championed NAFTA and NAFTA-style trade agreements (Summers, Geithner, Emanuel, etc.). These are people whose careers coddling corporate power are directly at odds with Obama's campaign promises (made, of course, in key industrial swing states) to seriously reform our trade policies.

This, of course, says nothing of the broader trade reforms that Obama also promised during the campaign - procurement reforms, reforms of international trade organizations, etc. Labor/environmental standards are the absolute minimum that needs to happen. And again, no one has been able to substantively show how the pragmatic fair trade reforms most progressives are pushing would weaken economic growth.

So now Obama has to choose whether to follow through on his campaign promises, or back out of them at the behest of his Washington advisers. Between his tepid statements on basic Buy America laws that he originally promised to vigorously support and now these weak statements on NAFTA, it looks like he's starting to prioritize the Washington status quo on trade over real change he promised.