As Presidential candidates, Clinton and Obama have talked more about U.S. trade policy failures, and they began acting like veritable globalization mavens once the primary schedule took them to manufacturing-heavy, highly unionized states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.
Their attacks on current and recent U.S. trade policies make broadly similar points – it’s sent too many good-paying jobs overseas, it’s especially bad for unions and the environment, and it’s run solely for the benefit of that powerful, greedy, and monolithic entity they call “business.”...
At best, Obama’s cursory approach is not trade-specific and stems instead from a broader disinterest in governing’s gritty details. At worse, it reflects either a genuine dismissiveness of the need to strengthen the economy’s productive base and healthy growth prospects, or an inability to conceal completely a fundamental agreement or at least high comfort level with how America’s place in the world economy has been changing.
Not that Obama’s campaign has been devoid of useful insights and genuinely informed observations about trade policy. His repeated point that seminal trade policy mistakes like NAFTA and expanding China trade were made during the Clinton presidency is much more than a politically inspired poke at his nomination rival. It represents an unprecedented acknowledgment by a nationally renowned Democratic figure that recent trade policies and their fallout represent thoroughly bipartisan policy failures – as well as a valuable reminder to the party that not all of today’s economic problems began on January 20, 2001....
Ultimately, however, what may speak loudest about Obama’s real trade policy views is the stubbornly elitist tone that has marked the candidate and his campaign. Take the (admittedly brief) schoolmaster-ish recitation of textbook-style open trade’s virtues and allegedly iron globalization-related economic realities that comes in virtually every major Obama statement on the subject.
“Now if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that we can’t stop globalization in its tracks....” “I believe in trade. I think all countries can prosper.” “To win, we have to understand some hard realities. Not every job that’s left is coming back, and if somebody tell you they are, they’re not telling you the truth.”...
More evidence for this dispiriting proposition comes from Obama’s now-infamous “bitter” remarks to a group of San Francisco Bay area funders. Obama has denied accusing “small town” Americans of irrationally (though understandably) blaming “people who aren’t like them” or “immigrants” or “trade” for their “frustrations,” and tried to dismiss the ensuing controversy as classic, mindless “gotcha” journalism and mudslinging politics.
But that’s exactly what he said, and the substance – which is utterly erroneous – deserves extensive debate....
At some point, the failure to understand a big truth can legitimately be seen as an unwillingness to understand. Thus Obama’s ostentatious truth-telling may signal a deep-seated apathy about Blue Collar America – except as a voting bloc – and by extension, Blue Collar America may not be the only, or the most important audience for these remarks. Who might they be aimed at instead? This theory sounds all too plausible – the chattering classes, the largely Washington and New York and Cambridge, Mass.-based complex of party professionals, Wall St. and multinational campaign contributors, former officials, policy intellectuals, and editorial writers and other pundits that together define the respectable, internationalist and free-trading center of American politics and policy, and that together determine which office-seekers can claim its invaluable mantle.
Those blessed by this establishment invariably are treated as solid, dependable, responsible, statesmanlike, even gifted. Those who are not find themselves pigeonholed at dangerous nuts.
Could Obama’s truth-telling on trade be an exercise in assuring this establishment that, despite his unconventional racial and ethnic background, on one of their top economic priority issues, he’s safely inside the mainstream consensus - that he’s one of them? And does his success so far mean that his tactic has worked?
Few questions surrounding the already historic 2008 campaign will have more important answers.
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