Candidate Obama Vs. President Obama On Trade

What happened to the candidate in sympathy with human rights advocates and labor unions?

President Barack Obama recently stood before the nation and addressed the dismal jobs report that showed unemployment was now hovering around 9.2 percent. As a part of his address, he called on Congress to “advance trade agreements [with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia] that will help businesses sell more American-made goods and services to Asia and South America, supporting thousands of jobs here at home.”

Astute observers will note that Obama said these agreements would support thousands of jobs in the U.S. — not that it would create them — which is the traditional political parlance for supporting a policy. One reason the Obama administration has used this rhetoric around the trade agreements is because there is very little data to show that these three agreements will actually create a net surplus of jobs in the United States. In fact, the Economic Policy Institute estimated in 2010 that the Korean and Colombian trade agreements will result in 214,000 jobs lost in the United States.

What’s interesting about the Obama administration (joined nearly at the hip by conservative business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and congressional Republicans) taking these positions on trade is they represent a significant departure from what candidate Obama campaigned on.

While it’s true that candidate Obama never endorsed a complete about-face on U.S. trade policy — the only candidate in the Democratic primary who did so was Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), who advocated for ending the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and returning to bilateral trade — he did engage in serious critiques and indicated that he would oppose the legacy of neoliberal trade policies.

While campaigning in the key battleground state of Ohio, Obama repeatedly called for reforming NAFTA, claiming that it cost the country up to a million jobs. By the spring of 2009, Obama’s trade representative Ron Kirk openly admitted that the administration will not seek to renegotiate any part of NAFTA.

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But Obama’s about-face on NAFTA isn’t the only trade flip-flop the president has had. While on the campaign trail in April of 2008, then-Senator Obama said he would oppose a new free trade agreement with Colombia “because the violence against unions [there] would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.”

While the administration is now busy downplaying concerns of human rights and labor advocates about the situation in Colombia, it’s important to note that the levels of violence in the country now are actually no different than where they were when Obama made that statement. According to data from the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights, Colombia in 2010 had 49 assassinations of labor officials — more than the rest of the world combined. That’s a major jump over 2007, when ITUC numbers show that there were only  37 assassinations, and 2008, when there were also 49 assassinations.

One has to wonder if Obama would not think that these continued high levels of violence would not make a “mockery” of any labor protections that would be included in an upcoming Colombia trade deal.

Candidate Obama certainly did not promise to upend U.S. trade policies in ways that many Americans sympathetic to the global labor and human rights movements would want — which would involve a more direct repudiation of the NAFTA and WTO trade regime models. Yet he was a sharp critic of unfair trade agreements and expressed sympathy towards human rights concerns. Candidate Obama appears to have vanished and President Obama appears to have more sympathy with the views of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and congressional Republicans than human rights advocates and labor unions.

*Note: According to the latest news, the trade deals discussed in this piece may go up for a vote around September.

Zaid Jilani is a Reporter-Blogger for ThinkProgress and The Progress Report at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.