Gustav Blows Obama Off NAFTA Message

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2008-09-02

Hurricane Gustav forced Barack Obama to drop his Sept. 1 message to labor groups that he wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, a controversial position that Obama pushed early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination but virtually ignored in his Aug. 28 acceptance speech.

According to an internal Obama campaign memo obtained by The Hill, Obama planned to use his Labor Day message in Michigan as a platform to again reassert his belief that the United States Canada and Mexico should negotiate a new deal "so that we can enforce labor and environmental standards."

However, Gustav's arrival on the Gulf Coast prompted Obama to ditch his planned remarks and he called on a large union gathering to send hurricane relief donations to the American Red Cross, telling the crowd "there is a time for us to argue about politics, but there is a time for us to come together as Americans."

Obama is assuredly going to get an argument from Republican presidential nominee John McCain -- not to mention large blocks of technology groups -- about NAFTA. McCain is an ardent supporter of the treaty approved in 1994 and also supported CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement), a treaty opposed by Obama because of its lack of labor and environmental safeguards.

Since he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama has supported the Peru FTA while opposing deals with Panama, Columbia and South Korea. McCain has supported all of the FTAs. The Obama memo obtained by The Hill said Obama will "work together with the leaders of Canada and Mexico - and he's confident that he can succeed because amending NAFTA is in the interest of workers in all three countries."

Obama's rhetoric on NAFTA had considerably cooled since he and Hillary Clinton engaged in widespread bashing of NAFTA during the primary season. As the two slugged it out in the rust belt primaries, both promised to impose a six-month opt-out clause if Canada and Mexico didn't agree to new terms.

The anti-NAFTA talk promoted Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to express concerns about the status of his country's deal with the United States. Obama later said the NAFTA talk had become overheated and made nice with Canadian officials.

Obama's primary remarks about NAFTA prompted McCain to tag Obama as a protectionist.

"Senator Obama said that he would unilaterally - unilaterally! - renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, where 33 percent of our trade exists. And you know what message that sends?" McCain said at a June press conference in Boston.  "That no agreement is sacred if someone declares that as president of the United States they would unilaterally renegotiate it."

McCain then underscored his position on NAFTA: "I stand for free trade, and with all the difficulties and economic troubles we're in today, there's a real bright spot and that's our exports. Protectionism does not work."

Obama also describes himself as a free trader but promises he will be a "better bargainer" when it comes to FTAs if he is elected president. 

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