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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 04:51 am


The senator from Illinois is sounding more and more progressive on trade

Untitled Document JANESVILLE, Wis. — When I talked with U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold about what the Democratic candidates for president needed to do to win the Wisconsin primary, he suggested that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton go to the senator’s hometown of Janesville and talk about trade. Obama got the hint. On the first full day of his Wisconsin primary campaign, the Illinois senator started in Janesville, where he delivered a rebuke to the free-trade policies of the Bill Clinton and George Bush eras that sounded a little like a speech Feingold might have delivered. “We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control. The fallout from the housing crisis that’s cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle. It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington — the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it’s produced,” Obama told workers at the General Motors assembly plant in the southern-Wisconsin city. “It’s a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits but none for our environment or our workers who’ve seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear, workers whose right to organize and unionize has been under assault for the last eight years,” continued the senator, who is suddenly very conscious of the need to appeal to working-class voters. In addition to proposing new infrastructure spending designed to “generate nearly 2 million new jobs — many of them in the construction industry that’s been hard hit by this housing crisis,” Obama sought to distinguish himself from Clinton on trade. “It’s also time to look to the future and figure out how to make trade work for American workers. I won’t stand here and tell you that we can — or should — stop free trade. We can’t stop every job from going overseas. But I also won’t stand here and accept an America where we do nothing to help American workers who have lost jobs and opportunities because of these trade agreements — and that’s a position of mine that doesn’t change based on who I’m talking to or the election I’m running in,” Obama said, taking a swipe at Clinton. “You know, in the years after her husband signed NAFTA Sen. Clinton would go around talking about how great it was and how many benefits it would bring. Now that she’s running for president, she says we need a time-out on trade. No one knows when this time-out will end. Maybe after the election.”
Then Obama declared: “[When] I am president, I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers. And I’ll pass the Patriot Employer Act that I’ve been fighting for ever since I ran for the Senate — we will end the tax breaks for companies who ship our jobs overseas, and we will give those breaks to companies who create good jobs with decent wages right here in America.”
This speech represents progress for Obama, who has not up to now been a particularly strong advocate for the fair-trade policies favored by labor and environmental groups. The cautious contender is still a long way from embracing the full agenda of the steel and auto workers’ union leaders and industrial-state senators and congressmen he has been talking with at some length in recent days. But Obama’s message at the GM plant was a good one — for the workers of Janesville and the other factory towns who’ll be voting this year.

John Nichols is Washington correspondent for
The Nation magazine.
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