Obama’s Embrace of Free Trade, and the Subversion of Democracy

Roger Bybee

President Barack Obama speaks on the economy and job creation in Kansas City, Mo., on July 8, 2010.

Has President Obama allowed Karl Rove to design a key piece of economic strategy crafted to deeply alienate core Democratic voters four months before the crucial mid-term elections?

The notion is of course absurd, but you have to wonder how Obama’s inner
circle of Wall Street-oriented geniuses — and his political advisors — dreamt up the president’s new push for expanded exports via new free-trade” agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Americans already have had extremely negative perceptions of free-trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has cost more than 1 million jobs since 1994. Yet precisely at a moment of extreme anxiety, President Obama and his economic advisors seem bent on further amping up the economic worries of already-insecure voters with free-trade” proposals that the vast majority of Americans — particularly Democrats — deeply despise.

The bad timing makes these proposals particularly mysterious. The latest
demoralizing unemployment reports that jobs dropped by 125,000 last month,
leave working Americans feeling like they are just slowly twisting in the breeze, with no relief coming soon.

Working families remain deeply worried about their jobs moving overseas, no extension of unemployment benefits, the prospect of home foreclosure, and how they will provide food for their families. Mike Elk summarized the results of a very recent Mark Mellman/​Alliance for American Manufacturing poll on this blog:

The poll …shows that President Obama’s approval rating are 11 points lower among households where a family member is employed in manufacturing than a household where no one is employed in manufacturing. That underscores a trend already noted: those most affected by the Democrats’ failure to deliver on their promises of trade reform are turning against the Democratic Party.

Thus, with very good reason, there is rising fear among Democrats about a
major massacre coming at the polls in November.

Obama has cloaked his support for free trade” as a strategy to build up the flow of U.S.-produced exports and increase the supply of good jobs, but working Americans have seen this movie before. They recall President Clinton and Al Gore promising that NAFTA wouldn’t hurt a bit.

With corporations relocating huge numbers of jobs to Mexico and using that threat to hold down wages for jobs remaining in the United States, Americans are unlikely to buy into Obama’s strategy.

With South Korea alone, the Economic Policy Institute’s Robert Scott has
calculated that a loss of nearly 200,000 jobs would occur due to a free trade” deal designed, above all, to protect and expand the rights of financiers and investors — not workers, consumers or the environment.


While candidate Obama refused to capitulate to almost-unanimous media criticism of his blistering attacks on free trade,” he has swung a full 180 degrees to embrace the very same version of globalization he hammered on the campaign trail.

Jumping on the free-trade bandwagon of America’s corporate, media, and political elites will have profoundly negative political and practical results. There are the political consequences of eroding the trust of key Democratic constituencies and, more surprisingly, missing the opportunity to divide the Tea Party wing of the Republicans.

Significantly, opposition to corporate globalization does not exist merely among unionized blue-collar Democrats, but even among Tea Party voters– whom many elite Democrats imagine to be utterly beyond the party’s possible influence with a strong populist economic message against the off-shoring of jobs – which the elites would oppose anyway.

As Mike Elk explained the stunning results of a survey of Tea Partiers: 

74% of self-described Tea Party supporters would support a national manufacturing strategy to make sure that economic, tax, labor, and trade policies in this country work together to help support manufacturing in the United States…”

But Obama is not only forsaking much of the Democratic voting base and the chance to appeal to Tea Partiers. More fundamentally, he is displaying the contempt for democracy that is integral to the corporate globalization mentality.


The drive for globalization has consistently come from elites across the globe who want to insulate their privileged economic status from democratically-established laws enacted at the local and national levels to protect worker rights, safeguard consumers from toxic products, and shield the environment from corporate greed.

The globalizers use trade agreements like NAFTA and the World Trade Organization to trump local and national democracy.

Ironically, the battle between globalization and democracy was clarified forcefully by right-wing economist Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, a devoted fan of fanatical free-marketeer Ayn Rand.

Caplan was distressed by the results of a poll showing that when people were exposed to both pro- and anti-free trade arguments, they tended to become more forceful in their opposition to free trade,” an attitude he (like the corporate media) labeled as protectionism.” But ignore the simplistic and misleading label, and tune into the profound underlying point about democracy. Caplan ruefully concluded,

free debate favors protectionism. If both free-traders and protectionists get to voice their opinions, the public becomes more protectionist than if neither free-traders nor protectionists get to do so. And under democracy, of course, the former is precisely what happens.

If only that were true, and if only our democracy was not tainted by the power of big campaign contributions.

The elites committed to corporate globalization are accustomed to mocking, marginalizing and utterly ignoring the opposition of majorities victimized by the relocation of family-supporting jobs, the brutal exploitation of the poor in nations like Mexico and China, and the undermining of democracy.

Sad to say, it appears that Barack Obama is signing on with the globalizers — and discarding a commitment to democracy, along with Democrats’ prospects for November.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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