02/19/2009 09:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mr. President, Don't Cave: NAFTA Isn't About "Free Trade"

When many people voted for "change", they embraced the idea that the parameters and language of our policy debate had to be altered. Nowhere is that more evident than on the topic of trade. Now, there is legitimate concern that the president may not live up to his rhetoric when it comes to so-called "free trade" and specifically NAFTA.

Today's New York Times reports:

As a candidate, Barack Obama courted votes in the Rust Belt by suggesting he might renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact he criticized as not "good for America."

Now Mr. Obama is about to make his first foreign trip as president to Canada, the United States' largest trading partner -- and he is sounding a strikingly different message.

With Canadians up in arms over "Buy America" provisions in President Obama's economic recovery package, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper warning the United States not to back away from its international treaty obligations, Mr. Obama, who will make a day trip to Ottawa on Thursday, is no longer emphasizing the idea of reopening Nafta.

Instead, he and his senior advisers are talking up the booming trade relationship between Canada and the United States -- the largest trade partnership in the world, the White House says -- and limiting their Nafta message to revamping side agreements on environmental and labor protections.

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday, the president said there were "a lot of sensitivities right now" about renegotiating trade pacts "because of the huge decline in world trade." As he tries to right the struggling American economy, Mr. Obama pledged to do so in a way that would enhance, rather than suppress, trade between the two nations.

"It's not in anybody's interest to see that trade diminish," he said.

Let me start with this basic point: no one is against trade. Trade has taken place since the beginning of human history. The only question is what RULES we put in place to manage trade. The issue of so-called "free trade" and, by extension, how one views the power of corporate America to shape our economic lives is, from my little vantage point, THE deep, systemic change question on the economic vision side.

I have argued for a very long time that "free trade" is just a marketing phrase. It does not exist in the world today--and perhaps never has. What we have are a very set of complex rules that are about one thing: seeking the lowest wage possible.

In fairness, on the topic of trade, the president has been fairly consistent:

First, then-candidate Obama made it clear that he believes in so-called "free trade". He has said so, on numerous occasions.

Second, during the campaign, he took a very hard, negative line against NAFTA, in large part because it was a useful--and correct--criticism of Hillary Clinton's support for NAFTA (she simply lied about her past position but that is not the topic of this post so I'll just leave it at that).

Third, of more concern, he found it necessary, once he became the party's nominee, to "moderate" his views on so-called "free trade", particularly to appeal to the economic elites.

Fourth, I think he is somewhat conflicted. I think the community organizer in him comes out when he speaks to union audiences or listens to the policy arguments that make a persuasive case about the damage of so-called "free trade". He understands oppression and corporate power. But, I think he also has a deeply ingrained faith--misguided, I would add--in marketing phrases like "free trade" and "free market". I think those faiths have been ingrained in him probably going back, in part, to his Harvard education, an institution where the belief in these marketing phrases is almost a religion.

If you accept the notion that NAFTA and other so-called "free trade" agreements are primarily about capital and investment rules, I would aruge that you cannot "fix" them with labor and environmental agreements--a point I made in a very detailed critique of the positions of candidates Obama and Clinton.

The people understand this and have signaled their position at the ballot box, in the 2006 cycle and the past cycle. Even a majority of Republicans oppose so-called "free trade".

So-called "free trade" lives in the same economic neighborhood as sub-prime mortgages, CEO greed, the attack against unions and the divide between rich and poor--all of which point to the real challenge we must address: the collapse of wages for most Americans. Until we take that head on, we won't get out of the economic crisis we find ourselves mired in.

My last point is this: The issue of so-called "free trade" is precisely an area where we need to have a vigorous, consistent, unyielding "loyal opposition" to the Administration. We can't depend on the president to change the debate on trade because he is a captive of a system that can only see trade in the prism of the debate between two false marketing phrases: "protectionism" versus "free trade".

We have to push hard, respectfully and loudly, with a simple point: you cannot succeed--the world cannot change--if we don't remove the so-called "free trade" boot that is pressing down on the necks of millions of Americans and workers everywhere.