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Working In These Times

Thursday, Mar 29, 2012, 1:24 pm

President Obama’s Etch A Sketch Factory Problem

BY Mike Elk

Rick Santorum pounces on the Romney camp's Etch A Sketch Gaffe at a rally in Wisconsin, March 27. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)  

Etch A Sketches have come to play an unexpectedly large role in this year's GOP presidential primary race. Earlier this month, the Romney campaign tripped itself up when one of its top political advisers, Eric Fehrnstrom, suggested that some of the more conservative stances of Romney could easily be reprogrammed for the general election.  

"It's almost like an Etch A Sketch—you can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again," Fehrnstrom said last week. Many political pundits were quick to point out how these comments could lead to Romney being painted as a flip-flopper; thus creating a potential "Etch A Sketch problem" for Romney. The comments quickly led to a variety of jokes and Internet memes about Etch A Sketches. As a result of the free publicity, Etch A Sketch’s stock shot up by 200 percent in one day.

"Happy to see Etch A Sketch, an American classic toy, is DRAWING attention with political candidates as a cultural icon and important piece of our society. A profound toy, highly recognized and loved by all, is now SHAKING up the national debate. Nothing is as quintessentially American as Etch A Sketch and a good old fashion political debate,"  Etch A Sketch’s marketing vice president, Martin Killgallon said in a statement.

But in recent years, in fact, Etch A Sketches have not been as “quintessentially American” as they used to be. For nearly 40 years, Etch a Sketches were manufactured in Bryan, Ohio, employing hundreds of workers. In December 2000, the company announced that under pressure from Wal-Mart to sell its good more cheaply, it was closing its Ohio factory and moving production to China. The company moved its factory to Shenzhen, China—the same city where Foxconn’s infamous factories produce Apple products.

Etch A Sketch was one of approximately 55,000 factories that have shut down in the United States since 2000. According to a study done by Economic Policy Institute, 2.8 million jobs were lost to China between 2001 and 2010.  Recently, President Obama has made a big deal of moving those jobs back from overseas. In his State of the Union address this year, he highlighted how Master Lock moved some jobs back from China to a plant in Milwaukee, saying

So we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it. Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed.

President Obama followed this up with a visit to a unionized Master lock plant in Milwaukee, at which he promised to push Congress ot pass legislation incentivizing businesses to bring jobs back to the United State. (It was at this event that a Politico reporter mistook the state flag of Wisconsin for the "union flag" of "Wisconsin Local 1848." For more see my story "What POLITICO's Wisconsin Local 1848 Screw-Up Reveals").

Reforming America’s trade policy remains a very popular issue for many Americans who have suffered the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to vote against South Korea Free Trade Treaty, label a China a currency manipulator, and renegotiate NAFTA. He then successfully pushed to pass the South Korea Free Trade Treaty, as well as similar deals with Colombia and Panama. He has reneged on his promise to  renegotiate NAFTA. While Obama has indeed imposed tariffcs on China for tire dumping and recently filed a WTO complaint over China’s manipulation of rare earth minerals, Obama has stopped short of labeling China a currency manipulator.

“When it comes to trade and China, every candidate—Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and the rest—has an Etch-A-Sketch problem,” says Alliance for American Manufacturing Executive Director Scott Paul. “Mitt Romney says he wants to get tough with China, but he opposed tariffs on Chinese tires. Barack Obama in 2008 threatened to sanction China for its currency manipulation, but his administration has failed six consecutive times to name China as a “currency manipulator.” Rick Santorum has “Made in America” on his podium, but he opposes Buy America requirements to give a government preference for American-made products and services.”

recent poll conducted by the Mellman Group and Ayers, McHenry, & Associates showed that 59 percent of Americans says the U.S. needs to “get tough with China and use every possible means to stop their unfair trade practice.”

As an another election season comes it appears that Obama is again trying to capture popular support for bringing back jobs overseas with anti-offshoring rhetoric and select visits to union plants. The question is: If he is re-elected and nothing changes, will he be able to shake up the American public's Etch A Sketch so that we forget his periodic passion for bringing jobs back from overseas?

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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