THE BLOG
06/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jim Johnson, NAFTA, and Barack's Short List for Vice President

Almost four years ago when I was writing a profile for Chicago magazine of Bill Daley (see this)--brother of the mayor of Chicago, lead lobbyist for NAFTA in the first Clinton term, commerce secretary in the second, chairman of the Al Gore campaign in 2000, and, with his brother, Mayor Rich Daley, an early backer of Obama--I interviewed one of Bill Daley's two best friends, James A. "Jim" Johnson. Johnson is in the news today because he is vetting vice presidential possibilities for Barack Obama, as he did for John Kerry in 2004 and for Walter Mondale 20 years before. (He also served as chairman of Mondale's campaign.)

Johnson seems universally well liked and respected, and he struck me as an extremely good guy, but one might wonder at Obama's decision to go with Johnson who helped to select Geraldine Ferraro in 1984--an avid Hillary Clinton supporter this year who observed on the record that Obama owed his lead in the nomination battle to his race--"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position." Johnson also helped to select John Edwards in 2004. A famously bad fit for John Kerry, Edwards failed to carry his own state of North Carolina for the ticket. Ferraro fared far worse. Mondale lost 49 states, including Ferraro's home state of New York as well as her congressional district.

Jim Johnson appears to be the ultimate inside player; a Washington smoothie, an establishment power player--former chairman of the Brookings Institution and the Kennedy Center. He is also a former chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae, the federally chartered secondary market mortgage investor. Bill Clinton appointed Bill Daley to Johnson's board. (Fannie Mae executives were recently investigated for allegedly overestimating the agency's earnings in order to reap bigger bonuses. Johnson left Fannie Mae in 1998 and was never charged with wrongdoing.)

Nobody would mistake Johnson, who endorsed and raised funds for Obama early on, as any kind of change agent; unless one meant that he intensely desires a change from republican to democrat in the White House.

Johnson is genuinely close to Bill Daley--Clinton's NAFTA "czar." In my interview with Johnson in 2004 he sang Daley's praises as a man who takes on seemingly impossible tasks, such as passing NAFTA, and gets them done.

Johnson was correct in describing Bill Daley's heroics in helping to push through NAFTA; a trade treaty that Bill Clinton and his aides saw as an almost sure loser. According to a writer for the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Bill Clinton was so pessimistic about NAFTA's chances that he named it the Lazarus Project. Al Gore, whom I interviewed for the profile, gave Daley "virtually 100 percent of the credit.....Nobody thought that we could get [NAFTA], but he was able to pull it out of the bag." Rahm Emanuel, then a Bill Clinton aide now a powerful congressman who has yet to endorse Hillary or Barack, told me in 2004, "Nobody wanted to touch NAFTA."

This is the same NAFTA that became so toxic during the nomination battle this year that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama denounced it and promised to renegotiate its terms were they to make it to the Oval Office.

David Bonior, former congressman from Michigan, who this year managed John Edwards's failed attempt to win the presidential nomination, was staunchly opposed to NAFTA, then and now. He told me when I interviewed him for the Chicago magazine piece, ""We had it won until the last week and half," He cited "two or three dozen members of congress, [who] if they don't have passion one way or the other, they stay neutral and get the best deal." Bonior explained that each was trying to get something--a bridge, a change in the treaty "to reflect some economic situation in their district. We didn't have anything to give." The Clinton administration had plenty to give and, charged Bonior, passed out some $20 billion in goodies. Daley was able to win NAFTA, political strategist Don Rose told me, because of his "ability to find everybody's price." Bill Clinton compared the battle to "sausage making," better not to see how it was accomplished."

One thing is certain, "Mr. NAFTA," Bill Daley won't be on Johnson's short list and couldn't be, NAFTA aside, because Daley and Obama are both Illinoisans. Given the importance of rust-belt states such as Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania to Obama's prospects in November, one key question Johnson will have pose to potential vice presidential prospects will be, "Which side were you on during the war over NAFTA?"