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Obama's Free Trade Sleight of Hand

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President Obama has pulled another rabbit out of his hat. Yesterday, as part of his sputtering "jobs plan," Obama submitted to Congress three pending Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama that were originally negotiated by President Bush in 2007. In doing so, Obama is ignoring growing opposition from his Democratic base and voters across the political spectrum to resurrect policies Congress has refused to approve for over four years. And to get his message across, he's using every trick in the book.

First is the bait-and-switch, with jobs as the lure. Just like Bush, Clinton, and the Bush before him, Obama cited trumped-up data from corporate lobbyists claiming these deals create jobs. This despite decades of evidence that NAFTA and other such deals have cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of them. But hey, if these FTAs are in the "jobs plan," they must be about creating jobs, right?

Nope. Here comes the switch. Beyond the talking points of these FTAs are a broad swath of new rights to multinational corporations that make the idea of corporate personhood seem quaint. The deals allow corporations to challenge public interest laws in international tribunals,with domestic courts powerless to stop them. Anything from minimum wages and clean water regulations to anti-teen smoking initiatives and recycling rules are vulnerable.

Additionally, they would further deregulate financial services -- a startling giveaway to the same firms that just wrecked our economy -- provide for price hikes on name-brand drugs, streamline exploitation of rural resources, and challenge such popular initiatives as local hiring preferences and "Make it in America" laws. The list goes on.

But just so we don't catch on to the true costs of "free trade," there's even misdirection. In his September jobs speech, Obama mentions none of this, instead evoking images of Kias and Hyundais prowling American streets and implying that the Korea FTA will somehow lead to "Fords and Chevys and Chryslers" garnering a similar market share in Korea. A nice thought, but misguided considering Koreans prefer smaller, cheaper, more fuel-efficient, Korean-made autos, and no FTA can change that.

The government's own U.S. International Trade Commission agrees. Even after Obama negotiated weakened efficiency standards for U.S. auto exports to Korea, the agency projects a several hundred million dollar increase in the U.S. trade deficit in autos and auto parts due to the Korea FTA. To borrow the president's metaphor, the deal will actually lead to more Kias in the U.S. compared to U.S. autos in Korea, resulting in greater job loss.

Of course, that's the big reveal. Abracadabra. These deals cost jobs.

The USITC itself projects that the Korea, Colombia, and Panama FTAs will increase the U.S. trade deficit, costing over 200,000 jobs according to the Economic Policy Institute. In a recent interview, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Obama's chief trade negotiator, went off script to say we'd be offshoring only low-wage manufacturing jobs that Americans don't want, seemingly blind to the 25 million Americans looking for full-time work.

This is a far cry from Obama's plans to "win the race to the top" by making fuel-efficient cars and semiconductors, given that "losing" sectors in the Korea FTA include electronic equipment, precision metalwork, autos and other transportation equipment, such as high-speed rail.

Unfortunately, Obama can't see that Americans recognize this act and are sick of it. They've reacted rightly in connecting the loss of nearly six million manufacturing jobs to unfair trade with China, Mexico, and other countries. A recent poll found that 69% of Americans, across party lines, view FTAs like these as job-killers.

Not only is public opposition to free trade at an all-time high, but major Democratic constituencies such as the labor and environmental movements are actively opposing the deals, and they're joined by a growing number of House and Senate Democrats. If Obama continues down this path, a reversal from his 2008 campaign position, the audience will not be impressed. And if he doesn't change his act now, he might be forced off the stage in 2012.