Nuclear Power, Trade and Afghanistan: Will Democrats Finally Support Obama? by Gregory Hilton

President Obama met last week with the Republican leadership which promised enthusiastic support for a number of his initiatives. The President has solid GOP backing for his 34,000 troop surge in Afghanistan, as well as his proposals to promote nuclear power, off shore drilling for oil and gas, clean coal technologies and three pending free trade agreements. All of these proposals were advocated by the President in his State of the Union address.
The President has announced a National Export Initiative to double U.S. exports in five years which would create two million new jobs. Enacting free trade agreements (FTAs) are a focal point for the Initiative. The GOP is behind him, and House Republican Leader John Boehner (OH) told the White House gathering that trade expands employment, and “this is crucial when America is desperately in need of new jobs.”
A significant problem is that many Democrats do not support the President. President Obama made a major policy shift last April when he promised to secure free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. The Obama pledge came immediately after the Latin Summit where the President had to endure anti-U.S. harangue’s from Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
It was a major disappointment when all of these trade initiatives ran into serious obstacles in the last Congress. Obama’s 2008 campaign rhetoric was almost the complete opposite on trade, and back then he appealed to protectionists. This was especially true when he went after Hillary Clinton’s past support for NAFTA during the Ohio primary.
The Washington Post says the failure to pass these agreements is “bad news for American companies and American workers.” They go on to say, “While America dithers, the European Union is pursuing trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and other nations; this threatens to leave the United States at a disadvantage. Since there is no economic argument against free trade with Colombia, opponents have had to come up with a political one — namely, that the FTA would reward a government with a poor human rights record. In truth, Colombia has made vast progress since the bloody days of its past. . .
“Are opponents of the FTA clinging to their arguments despite overwhelming contrary evidence? Is free trade with Colombia in the U.S. interest? And has the president indulged protectionists in Congress long enough? To all three questions, the answer is: ‘Absolutely.'”
The Los Angeles Times described the current trade debate this way, “Oh, all right, he didn’t exactly throw down a gauntlet in his State of the Union address and declare that expanding trade and increasing exports are essential to the country’s economic recovery and the creation of jobs. It was more of a lukewarm, milquetoast, noncommittal sentence or two in which the president mentioned something about ‘strengthening’ trade. Still, the United States has fallen so far from its perch as a leader on free-trade issues that just hearing the president refer to ‘key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia’ raised hopes that the trade agreements with those countries, now languishing in Congress due to strong union opposition, might be gaining presidential support.”
Obama’s U.S. Trade Representative is former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. He supported both NAFTA and CAFTA, and has repeatedly said NAFTA will not be reopened (Obama suggested it in the campaign). For the past year, the obstacles for the new trade agreements have been on Capitol Hill, not in the Obama Administration. A positive development is that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is now helping the free traders, but that puts him on a collision course with Speaker Pelosi.
The opposition is from the labor wing of the Democratic Party. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has introduced legislation which would prevent the pacts being ratified in the current Congress. Democrats like Brown also want to re-open the 1993 NAFTA agreement.
Obama will need significant help, and a majority of Democrats have already voted against the trade pacts. Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME) is typical of many of these protectionists. He says Obama’s stand on trade agreements is “absolutely outrageous and a serious mistake. . . This makes no sense whatsoever.” Republicans agree with Ron Kirk who says “Now is not the time to turn inward.” Obama is also pushing for enactment of the free trade Doha round and the Business Roundtable has endorsed his efforts.

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