WASHINGTON -- With just two weeks left before the November election, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney are treating Ohio as 2012's must-win battleground state. And as polls tighten, both campaigns are focusing their Buckeye State message on trade, with a surprising policy consensus emerging between the two candidates beneath their sharp campaign rhetoric.
While both Obama and Romney pledge to be more aggressive in enforcing trade deals with other countries -- especially China -- the two candidates also vigorously defend high-profile agreements that send U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas.
You wouldn't know it from listening to stump speeches in Ohio, where neither candidate has missed an opportunity to knock his opponent's purportedly soft trade enforcement plans.
"He's been talking tough on China," Obama said at a Sept. 26 rally at Bowling Green State University. "It sounds better than talking about all the years he spent profiting from companies that sent our jobs to China. So, you know, when you hear this new-found outrage. When you see these ads he's running promising to get tough on China -- it feels a lot like that fox saying, 'You know, we need more secure chicken coops'... It's just not credible."
That same day, Romney threw his own jab at Obama during a speech at a wire manufacturer in Bedford Heights, Ohio:
"A lot of people can talk. Talk is cheap," he said. "You can be extraordinarily eloquent and describe all the wonderful things you can do, but when you cut through the words you can look at the record, and when you can see policies that have not created the jobs America needs, then you know it's time to choose a new leader, get a new coach, get America growing again. That is why one thing I will do from Day One is label China a currency manipulator."
But in spite of Romney's tough talk on China, respondents to a national HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted between Oct. 18 and 19 were skeptical that the GOP nominee's rhetoric would match his actions when he took office. Fifty percent of respondents said they were skeptical that Romney would follow through on his promise to crack down on China trade policies, while 23 percent said they were confident that he would.
According to data provided by their campaigns, Obama has traveled to the state 13 times this year, while Romney has made a total of 22 trips -- 10 during the GOP primaries and 12 while campaigning for the general election.
Bolstered by outside groups, both presidential campaigns have also devoted a tremendous amount of ad spending toward Ohio. FCC data shows Romney’s campaign and conservative allies spent $12,060,330 between Oct. 1 and Oct. 22 in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati -- the state’s largest media markets -- on a total of 8,278 ads. The Obama campaign and its affiliates spent $11,280,720 on 10,753 ads in those markets over the same period. Several of those spots have included promises from each candidate to get tough on China, or charges that his opponent would do little more than send U.S. jobs there.
Tough-on-China rhetoric plays to a host of American anxieties about China's economy -- the U.S. dependence on borrowing from China, which owns more than $1 trillion in U.S. government debt; the frequent unlicensed use of U.S. corporate intellectual property in China; the artificially depressed value of China's yuan against the U.S. dollar; and the strong growth China's economy has shown as the U.S. has stagnated.
When candidates bring up any of these factors, they tap into voter unrest over the offshoring of American jobs -- even though some issues are incompatible or overblown. China manipulates its currency by purchasing U.S. government debt, so going after China on currency effectively means demanding that China stop buying American Treasury bonds. China owns less than eight percent of America's debt, giving the nation far less economic leverage over the U.S. than bombasitc campaign ads suggest.
But currency manipulation does give China a manufacturing edge, and could be deemed a violation of World Trade Organization treaties. Winning a WTO judgment against China would allow the U.S. to slap tariffs of 20 percent or more on all products made in China, leveling the playing field, and also declaring what would amount to a trade war.
The U.S. has made significant progress on the currency problem in recent years, without taking that step. China stopped explicitly "pegging" its currency to a specific value of the dollar in 2010, and now permits a broader range of valuation. The yuan has been steadily appreciating over the past year, reaching an all-time high this month.
What's more, such "cheating" only exacerbates problems for U.S. producers that are created by free trade treaties themselves. By packing in low labor standards, poor environmental protections and other provisions, WTO treaties and other pacts modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement have encouraged U.S. corporations to send jobs abroad.
Beltway think tanks and politicians have long favored these free trade policies, but in states that have hemorrhaged jobs in the past 20 years, there remains bipartisan resistance to such trade pacts.
"I voted against almost every free trade agreement negotiated by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations," said Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio).
"I've disagreed with presidents of both parties," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), referring to free trade pacts. "I think trade policies have contributed -- as have our tax policies -- to a huge loss in manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. We lost 5 million manufacturing jobs in this country ... 60,000 factories closed in those 10 years."
No swing state has seen its economy hammered as hard as Ohio's since the U.S. joined the WTO in 1994, with employment in the manufacturing sector plunging by one-third, according to the consumer protection nonprofit group Public Citizen. According to a study by economist Robert Scott with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think-tank, Ohio shed 91,800 jobs between 2001 and 2010 due to the rising trade deficit with China.
But Brown argues the state's manufacturing industry has been on the mend lately due to a combination of the president’s auto bailout and his trade enforcement record.
"Obama has been more aggressive in trade enforcement than any of his immediate predecessors of either party," Brown said. "Since early 2010 -- in part because of the auto rescue and in part because of the president enforcing trade law -- we've seen job increases in manufacturing."
But when it comes to the actual terms of free trade agreements, Romney and Obama have nearly identical platforms. Obama pushed through free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that were negotiated by President George W. Bush, and is currently pressing for a pact with 10 Pacific nations called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Obama has enthusiastically defended this record.
"I've signed trade agreements that are helping our companies sell more goods to millions of new customers, goods that are stamped with three proud words: Made in America," Obama said during his speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Romney's jobs platform explicitly defends those pacts, and praises NAFTA-style free trade as a general policy principle. "Free Trade Agreements are one of the best routes to accomplishing our goals," reads his official jobs platform, which calls for more NAFTA-style pacts. Romney also pledges to sign the Trans-Pacific deal "at the earliest possible date."
The Trans-Pacific deal, like the three agreements Obama pushed through Congress, is strongly supported by almost every major American corporation. Opening up new markets gives companies additional customers, but since the U.S. is already the largest consumer market in the world, the primary corporate benefits accrue from the very policies that trouble Ohio voters: Cheaper production costs abroad boost corporate profits and shutter factories at home.
New Balance, the only major footwear company that still manufactures shoes in the U.S., has repeatedly warned the Obama administration that it may have to close its remaining domestic factories if the Trans-Pacific deal is finalized, due to draft terms offering Vietnam tariff-free access to American markets. Vietnam was cited by the U.S. Department of Labor in September for relying on child labor and forced labor in its garment industry, and for the human trafficking of children.
Romney insists, however, that America's basic trade problem is the Obama administration's weak enforcement of these free trade deals. That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who told The Huffington Post that the president has failed to crack down on unfair Chinese trade practices, earning the country a "free ride."
"There's no such thing in the world as free trade -- you need fair trade," Shuster said. "The Chinese aren't fair traders and we have to be after them enforcing the laws. I'm for international trade, but it's got to be fair, and at this point -- especially with a country like China -- it's not fair."
But Obama has been more aggressive at promoting American products through trade enforcement than any president in decades. He has won WTO judgments against China for foul play on tires and solar panels, while his International Trade Commission has approved tariffs on steel subsidized by the Chinese government.
Without winning Ohio, Romney's path to election is close to impossible, so it's not surprising that both candidates are cherry-picking from their trade proposals to appeal to the state's voters. But LaTourette isn't buying the tough talk from either candidate.
"I've been here long enough that I really don't put a lot of stock in what someone says, I put more stock in what someone does," he said. "That’s how I judge the president's record, and if Mitt Romney's elected in November, that's how I’ll judge him."
-- Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.
This story has been updated to include the results of the HuffPost/YouGov poll.