The Obama Foreign Trip Topic That Dares Not Rear Its Head: Trade
  Given that Barack Obama has been visiting foreign lands where the U.S. attitude toward free trade is a major concern among European leaders, and given that Obama is campaigning in a U.S. presidential race where the economy is of foremost interest, it is still not terribly surprising that Obama has had little to say during his trip on the topic of international commerce. Consequently, perhaps, the issue vis-a-vis Obama's trip has received little coverage in the U.S. press. Obama's skeptical view of free trade is surely his least popular position among top European officials, and Obama bringing it up would have highlighted differences that could distract from some of the glossy photos. And, since this is the trip designed to burnish Obama's commander-in-chief credentials, a good portion of the trip -- including the European leg -- has been heavily focused on security issues.

Here, so far as I can discern, is all he's said, which he uttered at the Column speech: "Trade has been a cornerstone of our growth and global development. But we will not be able to sustain this growth if it favors the few, and not the many. This is the moment for trade that is free and fair for all." It didn't come up at all in his press conference with Nicolas Sarkozy -- well, unless you count the Afghanistan narcotics trade. An Obama team press summary of Obama's meetings in Germany made only a passing mention of discussions with Angela Merkel on "broader economic challenges," but the bulk of the summary indicated the meetings were about NATO and the like.

Polls show free trade is not so popular in the United States. Many Americans think that it has not helped the economy. But European leaders and thinkers believe a U.S. backslide on trade would be bad for their continent. This New York Times piece, one of the few to tackle the Obama/Europe trade divide, notes that "Europe’s trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, last month urged both Mr. Obama and his Republican rival, Senator John McCain, to reject 'the false comforts of populism' and abandon 'the protectionist and antitrade rhetoric' that dominated the primaries." Mandelson went on: “A crisis of American confidence in globalization could knock it off course.” The piece also notes European anger at U.S. farm subsidies and renewed bidding on a refueling tanker contract originally won by a European-led consortium. In the long run, Obama's position on free trade could affect an impasse in WTO talks.

So while John McCain's more welcoming attitude toward free trade might not do him favors in the U.S., and while George Bush's policies in general are wildly unpopular, this is one of the few areas where the GOP president and his party's 2008 candidate are more in tune with Europe than Obama. "When it comes to trade, Obama could actually be less helpful for Europeans than McCain because I am sure that a President Obama with a Democratic Congress would be pushed to be more protectionist, while McCain would be more keen on promoting open borders and the free market than Obama," said Francois Lafond, director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund, speaking about WTO talks. "This is a tricky thing for Europeans as they are backing Obama to a certain degree. But indeed it could become more difficult for the Europeans to get an agreement if the Democrats returned to the White House, because public opinion will be pushing towards more protectionism, meaning that Americans will be more selective on what products should be allowed access to their market."

One more day to go on a trip that largely has the looks of a resounding success. Let's see if the leaders or press in London force Obama to talk more about free trade.
Tim Starks 26.07.2008, 02:18 # 3 Comments
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  I am a staunch right wing conservative, who is against BOTH Obama and McCain. I would support Obama if he would start to put our priorities straight such as favoring the needy in Atlanta Georgia over Tiblisi Georga, and repeal NAFTA, and all other free trade agreements, that undermine national sovergnity.  
  David Brown | Homepage | E-Mail | 18.08.2008, 22:31  
  Since world trade really kick into high gear there has only been 1/6th the amount of new jobs created in the US as compared to the 1990's. As a result incomes for the middle class have declined with inflation.

The obvious conclusion is that the jobs are being outsourced or offshored. If I were a Davos billionaire I'd still be enthusiastic about world trade because I would be getting all the benefit.
Its time to reexamin this whole trade situation.

Besides pulling out of Iraq, I would also like to see us quit wasting our money stationing troops in countries like South Korea and Germany. These countries are wealthy enough to take care of their own security needs.

I have voted Republician since Ronald Reagan. But, the money-con section of the party got greedy and short changed the middle class. The moneycons will discover that there are not enough of them to get elected dog catcher without the middle class voters. I will be voting for Obama this time around and for democrats in Congress.
  Tom | Homepage | E-Mail | 27.07.2008, 04:57  
  I've been trying to ween myself off the habit of "hearing what I want to hear" but in this regard at least, I have the weight of historical precedent. Historically the Democrats have been more vocal in their opposition to free trade but have been just as good or better at getting free trade policies passed into law. There's some evidence that his type of party-line reversal happens all the time and on both sides of the aisle. The logic is that the American voters are more willing to swallow bitter pills if they are delivered with hesitant hands. So while Obama talks about more protectionism at home, I doubt he'll do much about it. And, I''m not alone in believing that that would be a horrible mistake. The American government needs to pull dollars out of circulation and find ways to attract more FDI and limiting trade is detrimental to both tactics.

He hasn't really said what he would do, with NAFTA for example, but I for one would like to see less protection on American goods while seeing a simultaneous addition of some labor and environmental strictures abroad. The net effect on trade could be engineered to be minimal (shifting of commodities but not dollars transfered) and there should be downward distribution of wealth. In that way Obama wouldn't be adding domestic protectionism but it's effect would be similar in that it would temporarily and artificially raise the effective standard of living in other countries which would 1) encourage them to buy more American goods and 2) discourage American companies from moving manufacturing overseas...without directly legislating either.
  Jim | Homepage | E-Mail | 26.07.2008, 14:02