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Obama's Strange New Love of Free Trade

06/24/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016
MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

Barack Obama, historically, has never been a particularly strong advocate of free trade. While in the U.S. Senate, he was always quick to express caution and advocating amendments to make sure "jobs" and human rights were protected. Now he sounds like the original champion of free trade. It is odd to see free market trade advocates like Paul Ryan (R-MN), backing the president passionately in his effort to get fast track authority for a trade deal.

There has been a protracted battle between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the president over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is an agreement the U.S. is negotiating with 11 countries in the Pacific that would lower tariffs on a number of American goods and services in the region. The Obama administration has argued that the proposal would also increase U.S. exports in the region. The deal would impact about 40 percent of American trade. According to the U.S. Trade Representative the countries involved are Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Many people who are watching the events unfold about Obama and trade are asking, "who is this guy?" What happened to the senator from Illinois who consistently argued that free trade was often unfair trade for average Americans everywhere. While in the U.S. Senate, Obama voted no on implementing CAFTA for Central America free-trade in 2005, supported significant changes to NAFTA (especially as it impacted labor) in 2007, called for tough stands as far as human labor rights in regards to China in 2004, He went on to argue that trade deals should definitely favor the United States and be demonstrated in tangible benefits. In fact, from 2004, there is a long list of reforms and agendas that Obama pursued in the Senate that as president, it is likely he would find as hampering to the trade process.

How much things have changed may be summed up best by the tension between the leading progressive of the US Senate, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and the president. For the last couple of months Warren has been relentless in her criticism of President Obama. In a scathing 16-page report Warren argues "Again and again, proponents of free trade agreements claim that this time a new trade agreement has strong and meaningful protections"... "Again and again, those protections prove unable to stop the worst abuses." The report takes direct aim at the Obama administration and is entitled, "Broken Promises."

What is interesting is that many of the arguments used by Warren could have been advocated by Obama, particularly during his Senate years. The conversion to advocate of free trade begs the question, what changed his mind?

Cynical critics might look at the career of Bill Clinton. Clinton, as a moderate Democrat, was never particularly hostile towards trade. However, as president of United States, he became the chief champion of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That is an agreement that Senator Obama (before being elected president), was often critical. In a telling statement, Bill Clinton stated, "I never had any money until I got out of the White House, you know, but I've done reasonably well since then," during the Fortune Time CNN Global Forum in Cape Town, South Africa. That is an understatement, with a projected net worth today of $80 million, he is one of the richest former presidents ever, with a net worth higher than George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush combined.

The book, Clinton Cash, paints the picture of a president and first lady who are now accused of making a fortune off of their public policies while in power. Those policies obviously included trade deals. It should be no surprise that many are wondering if Obama's new found love for trade deals may be founded in a desire to pave the way for an "Obama Foundation." Such a trade deal he is negotiating will certainly pave the way for goodwill between Obama and the incredibly lucrative Pacific Rim. Concern that Obama has post-White House objectives in such trade deals are not far fetched, considering his record of concern about such agreements as a U.S. senator. What else could have motivated such a conversion?

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