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Will "Free Trade" Save Obama in 2012?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010 10:32 By Robert Naiman, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Will "Free Trade" Save Obama in 2012?
President Barack Obama holds a meeting on the economy with his advisers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2010. (Photo: Pete Souza / Official White House Photo)

According to the editors of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, with Republicans taking over the House and measured unemployment at 9.6 percent, now is the time for President Obama to "show leadership" by pushing for (so-called) "free-trade agreements" negotiated by former President George W. Bush. (Democrats "show leadership" by betraying the people who elected them - that's a standard editorial theme.) But what the nation's editorialists won't tell you is that this agenda would be a big electoral loser for President Obama, because the public opposes it; in particular, Republican and independent voters don't support these agreements.

The Washington Post said:

Trade is one issue on which the Congress elected on Tuesday is potentially an improvement over its predecessor. The Democratic majority in the House was heavily influenced by organized labor and hostile to trade ... Democrats also denounced free-trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama left over from President George W. Bush's administration and still unratified.... Now that the Republicans are in the majority, all three trade agreements have better prospects....

The New York Times said:

President Obama has now committed to winning approval of a free-trade pact with South Korea that was signed by the Bush administration in 2007 but never voted on in Congress because of staunch Democratic opposition ... The president must not stop there. Trade deals with Colombia and Panama have also languished without Congressional action. And he must press to revive stalled global trade negotiations ... Getting these trade deals through Congress won't be easy, although Mr. Obama may find new allies in the Republican-controlled House. American trade unions, an important Democratic constituency, are decidedly unenthusiastic.

The Los Angeles Times said:

The wide differences between Republicans and Democrats on economic policy don't leave much room for compromise over the next two years. But Tuesday's takeover of the House of Representatives by the GOP raises hopes for progress on at least one important initiative: It might help President Obama win approval of a U.S.- South Korea free-trade pact ... It's questionable whether Obama will have the political courage to upset the Democrats' political base by seriously pushing for the trade deal.

These three editorials all appeared within a day of each other.

The view of these editorialists is clear: free-trade agreements are good for America. The only reason we don't have more of them is that Democratic elected officials have been cowering from the terrible threats of labor unions.

But there is a key problem with this story. Despite the tireless efforts of the nation's editorialists, the American people don't believe it and their failure to take instruction on this point from the nation's editorialists is greater among Republican voters and independents.

The same week that these editorials appeared, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press published results of its recent public opinion polling on free-trade agreements.

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(Like the nation's editorialists, the Pew Center uses the favored terminology of those who support these agreements, referring to them as free-trade agreements - without quotes - even though they have increased barriers to trade, for example by limiting the trade in patented medicines. )

Overall, Pew found that 35 percent say that free-trade agreements have been good for the United States, while 44 percent say they have been bad for the US. Among Republicans, 28 percent said free-trade agreements have been good for the US, and 54 percent said that they have been bad. Among independents, 37 percent said that they have been good, and 46 percent said that they have been bad. Among Republicans who say they agree with the Tea Party, 24 percent say that free-trade agreements have been good for the US, while 63 percent say they have been bad.

When Pew asked about specific effects of free-trade agreements, the responses were even more negative: 55 percent said free-trade agreements led to job losses in the US, compared with just 8 percent who said these agreements create jobs; 45 percent said free-trade agreements make wages lower, while only 8 percent said they make wages higher; 43 percent said they slow the economy down, while 19 percent said they make the economy grow. These results were similar across party lines.

When Pew asked people how free trade agreements have affected them personally, the response was also more negative than when they were asked about how these agreements affected the U.S. overall: 26 percent said they have been helped and 46 percent said they have been hurt. These results were similar across party lines.

There was one group of people who clearly derived benefit from free-trade agreements, according to the Pew poll: people in developing countries, in the imagination of Americans. Fifty-four percent of Pew's American respondents said these agreements were good for people in developing countries, while just 9 percent said they were bad.

The obvious explanation for this result is this: Americans are awash in a sea of media propaganda that claims that free-trade agreements are good for America and good for other countries, like the three editorials cited above. However, when it comes to judging the impact of these agreements on the US, they weigh the media propaganda against their own personal experience. That explains why their assessment of the effects is even more negative when they are asked about specific effects, or their own direct experience, because those questions focus attention away from the media slogans.

But in judging the effects on other countries, most Americans have no independent basis of information to weigh the media propaganda against. Certainly, the same media who are haranguing Americans in support of free-trade agreements cannot be expected to lead the way in educating them about what people in other countries think of these free-trade agreements.

In November 2005, the Bush administration's effort to create a "Free Trade Area of the Americas" collapsed at the summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina. It wasn't US Democratic politicians or US trade unions that finally created Waterloo for the Bush administration's free-trade jihad. It was opposition to this agenda in Latin America. This story has never really been told in the US media, because it's inconvenient for the free-trade ideology.

But Oliver Stone's recent documentary, "South of the Border," tells this story. The film is now available on DVD, and the DVD includes portions of an interview with Brazil's outgoing President Lula that weren't in the movie as shown in theaters. In the interview on the DVD, Lula presents a view of the free-trade agreement agenda that you are very unlikely to ever see in The New York Times or The Washington Post:

Oliver Stone: 2005 at Mar del Plata, the "free trade agreement" was rejected. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

Lula: It was great ... It was not a free trade agreement. It was a process of commercial colonization by a very rich nation against poorer nations.

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 November 2010 13:11