Will Anger Over Offshoring, Free-Trade Deals, Cost Obama Re-election in 2012?

Roger Bybee January 7, 2011

With near­ly 9 out of 10 Amer­i­cans con­vinced that the off­shoring” of jobs to Mex­i­co, Chi­na, and India was a top rea­son for job loss and America’s strug­gling econ­o­my, how did the Democ­rats man­age to turn Novem­ber 2 into such a mas­sacre for their can­di­dates?

This is a cru­cial ques­tion for labor, because the Repub­li­can gains not only destroyed labor’s chances for mov­ing for­ward on issues like the Employ­ee Free Choice Act on eas­i­er union recog­ni­tion, but also opened the gates for rad­i­cal attacks on pub­lic employ­ees and per­haps the biggest con­cert­ed push for right-to-work” laws ban­ning the union shop since the Taft-Hart­ley Act in 1947.

Essen­tial­ly, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and the Democ­rats failed to offer a cred­i­ble nar­ra­tive on the con­tin­ued eco­nom­ic slump that direct­ly blamed Cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca for off­shoring jobs. The con­se­quences could be huge: Both a loss of faith in the Democ­rats among work­ing peo­ple, and a loss of union mem­ber­ship due to the huge increase in Repub­li­can power.


When unem­ploy­ment is high, the par­ty in pow­er is nor­mal­ly pun­ished in midterm elec­tions. But this was no nor­mal year: Vot­ers were wide­ly and deeply con­vinced that cor­po­rate off­shoring of jobs — not just gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy — plays a role in dec­i­mat­ing jobs and their communities.

The pub­lic is uni­fied as nev­er before across class, edu­ca­tion­al, and par­ti­san lines about the destruc­tive effects of free trade” agree­ments and the off­shoring of jobs that it such FTAs promote.

An Octo­ber Wall Street Jour­nal/NBC News poll report­ed on by the Wall Street Jour­nal showed the remark­ably strong and wide­spread pub­lic anx­i­ety — 86% over­all — over the export of jobs: In the recent WSJ/NBC poll, 83 per­cent of blue-col­lar work­ers agreed that out­sourc­ing of man­u­fac­tur­ing to for­eign coun­tries with low­er wages was a rea­son the U.S. econ­o­my was strug­gling and more peo­ple weren’t being hired; no oth­er fac­tor was so often cit­ed for cur­rent eco­nom­ic ills.”

Remark­ably, 90% of Repub­li­cans — com­pared with 84% of Democ­rats — expressed wor­ry in the poll about the eco­nom­ic effects of off­shoring. And the lev­el of con­cern among blue-col­lar work­ers was low­er than the gen­er­al lev­el of 86% and sub­stan­tial­ly below that expressed by pro­fes­sion­als and man­age­r­i­al employ­ees, at 95%, prob­a­bly because blue-col­lar work­ers have long been sub­ject to the threat of offshoring.

The impor­tant change is that very well-edu­cat­ed and upper-income peo­ple com­pared to five to 10 years ago have shift­ed their opin­ion and are now express­ing sig­nif­i­cant con­cern about the notion of…free trade,” said Bill McIn­turff, a Repub­li­can pollster.

Among those earn­ing $75,000 or more, 50 per­cent now say free-trade pacts have hurt the Unit­ed States, up from 24% who said the same in 1999. No doubt the fast-grow­ing phe­nom­e­non of off­shoring pro­fes­sion­al jobs helps to explain this shift.


The near-unan­i­mous wor­ry about off­shoring (includ­ing 90% of Repub­li­cans), resent­ment about US cor­po­ra­tions cre­at­ing jobs over­seas but not at home, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of divid­ing the Repub­li­cans by heav­i­ly stress­ing the off­shoring issue — should have cre­at­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Demo­c­ra­t­ic counter-attack against the Repub­li­cans’ illog­i­cal claims that gov­ern­ment spend­ing to stim­u­late the econ­o­my was some­how cost­ing jobs.

But Pres­i­dent Oba­ma stepped back from push­ing a strong eco­nom­ic nar­ra­tive that would have point­ed out how cor­po­rate off­shoring was under­min­ing his eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus efforts. Even in staunch­ly pro-union com­mu­ni­ties like my home­town of Racine, Wis., Oba­ma bare­ly men­tioned the issue of offshoring.

The off­shoring issue emerged only when indi­vid­ual Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates began to high­light the issue with their speech­es and TV ads. House can­di­dates attack­ing free trade” and off­shoring were three times more like­ly to win than pro-“free trade” Democ­rats, accord­ing to a detailed analy­sis by Pub­lic Campaign’s Glob­al Trade Watch. The study also showed a vast explo­sion in the nation­al impor­tance of the issue as it became a cen­tral theme in many elec­tions.

But what lessons, if any, did Oba­ma draw from the mas­sacre in which 63 House seats and 6 Sen­ate seats were lost? He cav­a­lier­ly turned the very next week to pro­mot­ing a NAF­TA-style free trade agree­ment with South Korea. The deal is fierce­ly opposed by the AFL-CIO, and the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute esti­mates that it will cost 159,000 US jobs.

Poll­ster Ruy Teix­eira of the Cen­ter for America’s Progress views Obama’s push for the South Korea free-trade aagree­ment as deep­en­ing the estrange­ment already felt by many work­ing people.

Try­ing to run around doing free trade agree­ments [Oba­ma is also plan­ning such deals with Colom­bia and Pana­ma] seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive,” the poll­ster and ana­lyst stat­ed in an inter­view. To a lot of vot­ers, it will seem too cozy with the high­er reach­es of eco­nom­ic pow­er.

Peo­ple would respond bet­ter to a more pop­ulist tone from the pres­i­dent, giv­en that the par­ty suf­fered near­ly a 30-point deficit among mod­er­ate to low-income Democ­rats on Nov. 2. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma may be under­es­ti­mat­ing how weary peo­ple are about los­ing jobs and what a neg­a­tive reac­tion that they will have,” Teix­eira cau­tioned.

Still, the issue of off­shoring jobs must gain media vis­i­bil­i­ty before elites in both par­ties must start address­ing the issue, argues Jeff Faux, pres­i­dent of the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute. Thus far, media gate­keep­ers” — who share the pro-“free trade” per­spec­tive of cor­po­rate CEOs and their polit­i­cal allies in both par­ties — have large­ly dis­missed con­cern about off­shoring-caused job loss as back­ward-look­ing protectionism.


That makes it all the more vital for labor and its pro­gres­sive allies to re-frame” the issue of pre­serv­ing America’s pro­duc­tive base, sav­ing jobs, and pro­tect­ing income stan­dards. The debate has to be framed that it’s about the future of the coun­try,” Faux stress­es. Right now, it’s been framed in the main­stream media as the loss of jobs from bygone era.”

But sig­nif­i­cant obsta­cles remain to labor and pro­gres­sives press­ing Oba­ma on offshoring.

The Repub­li­cans’ unwa­ver­ing, fanat­i­cal attacks on Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and vir­tu­al­ly every reform of the last cen­tu­ry will tend to deny pro­gres­sives the polit­i­cal space to chal­lenge Obama’s polit­i­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­as­trous free trade” poli­cies. There will be a def­i­nite impulse to cir­cle the wag­ons because he’s under such attack from the Right, and pro­gres­sives will find them­selves in that cir­cle, too,” main­tains Ruy Tex­eira.

While Oba­ma may toss pro­gres­sives an occa­sion­al con­ces­sion on trade issues, he will ulti­mate­ly have to win back his 2008 vot­ers and con­vince them that he is sin­cere and seri­ous about fight­ing to pre­vent jobs from being off-shored.


Lori Wal­lach, direc­tor of Pub­lic Citizen’s Glob­al Trade Watch, makes a per­sua­sive case (Com­mon Dreams​.org, 11/3/10) that Oba­ma can­not hope to be re-elect­ed with­out tak­ing deci­sive action to stop the tide of off­shoring jobs and pro­mot­ing an alter­na­tive fair trade” mod­el that pro­tects US jobs and work­ers’ rights and the envi­ron­ment around the world.

With­out regain­ing the faith of vot­ers in the indus­tri­al Mid­west – where unions’ num­bers are now threat­ened by the right-to-work” offen­sive– who were cru­cial to his vic­to­ry in 2008, it is hard to see any path to an Oba­ma can reelec­tion, says Wallach:

In 2008, Oba­ma only won the elec­tion because he won the crit­i­cal states of Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin by dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing him­self from McCain on trade. It is pret­ty obvi­ous with Dems and GOP nation­wide run­ning against the trade sta­tus quo and its job off­shoring dam­age, that if Oba­ma flip-flops now in favor of more job-killing NAF­TA agree­ments, he will lose those states and end up a one-term president.

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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