Monday, August 10, 2009

Recession Silver Linings (NAFTA edition)

I'm certainly not inclined to downplay the current economic mess in this country, but the recession's dark clouds do occasionally contain a silver lining or two. Today's example finds President Obama using the recession as the perfect excuse to disregard his awful campaign pledge to renegotiate NAFTA. Obama was in Guadalajara, Mexico, over the weekend meeting with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts in what some have oddly dubbed "the Three Amigos Summit." (No word yet on which country played the role of "Ned Nederlander," but I have my suspicions. *cough*Canada*cough* Also, does this make Cuba or Venezuela "El Guapo"? I have so many questions. But I digress.) At the summit, the President did some welcome backpedaling on the trilateral trade agreement, says Reuters:
Obama assured reporters from Hispanic media on Friday that due to the recession, now is not the time to reopen the NAFTA trade treaty, an issue that worries major exporters in Mexico.
As you may recall, candidate Obama was a vocal critic of NAFTA and went so far as to call for its renegotiation at a February 2008 debate in Cleveland:

I will make sure that we renegotiate [NAFTA].... I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced. And that is not what has been happening so far.

That is something that I have been consistent about. I have to say, Tim, with respect to my position on this, when I ran for the United States Senate, the Chicago Tribune, which was adamantly pro-NAFTA, noted that, in their endorsement of me, they were endorsing me despite my strong opposition to NAFTA.

Unsurprisingly, candidate Obama began reversing course right after he won the Democratic primary. (Not having to kowtow exclusively to unions will do that to a guy.) In a June interview with Forbes, he called his stance on NAFTA "overheated rhetoric." His advisers allegedly started calming nerves long before that.

But President Obama once again had people concerned after he won the election. He told Mexican President Felipe Calderon in January 2009 that he wanted to "upgrade" the Agreement. And then he publicly informed Canada's Stephen Harper in February that NAFTA renegotiation was definitely still on his mind:
Obama told reporters at the press conference in Ottawa he wanted to begin talks on adding provisions to [NAFTA] relating to workers and to the environment.

"My hope is as our advisers and staffs and economic teams work this through that there's a way of doing this that is not disruptive to the extraordinarily important trade relationship that exists between the two countries," he said.

A few months later, however, USTR Ron Kirk said that actual "renegotiation" of the Agreement was off the table, but the administration still wanted to "strengthen" NAFTA with new labor and environmental provisions (e.g., through side agreements). I guess that's better, but it's really a distinction without a difference. Well, as of yesterday it looks like any and all NAFTA changes, whatever the form, are off the table (for now, at least).

It's one Presidential flip-flop that I can definitely get behind. And we all have the recession to thank for it.

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