June 19th, 2008
11:20 AM ET
10 years ago

Obama softens NAFTA rhetoric

Sen. Obama had strong words for NAFTA in February and March.

Sen. Obama had strong words for NAFTA in February and March.

(CNN) - Before the Ohio primary in March, the battle between Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton morphed into a fierce debate over free trade – a clash that seemed to hinge on which candidate could appear more anti-NAFTA.

Now, in an interview with Fortune magazine, Obama appears to backing off his tough talk on trade.

"Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," Obama told Fortune.

Obama has consistently described him himself a free-trader at heart, but the heightened rhetoric on NAFTA put forth by both he and Clinton opened the Democrats up to accusations of political pandering from Republicans and editorial boards.

In February, Obama said during a presidential debate in Cleveland that job losses brought about by NAFTA were "devastating on the community." He told the Associated Press that same month that "I don't think NAFTA has been good for America, and I never have."

Fortune asked Obama if his trade rhetoric was "overheated and amplified."

"Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don't exempt myself," Obama responded.

In the interview, Obama did emphasize that "there are costs to free trade" and that "can't pretend that those costs aren't real." Obama said job losses caused by free trade feed "the protectionist sentiment and the anti-immigration sentiment that is out there in both parties."

Obama also walked back his threat in February to unilaterally renegotiate NAFTA.

"I'm not a big believer in doing things unilaterally," Obama said, adding that he had just spoken to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who expressed concern about the free trade debate in February and March. "I'm a big believer in opening up a dialogue and figuring out how we can make this work for all people."

Obama's rival John McCain travels to Ottawa tomorrow, but Harper will be out of town, according to reports.

Filed under: Candidate Barack Obama • Hillary Clinton • John McCain • Ohio
soundoff (118 Responses)
  1. Joe

    I love how in the eyes of his supporters (95%of those who comment here) Obama can do no wrong.

    Seriously people, get off the cool aid.

    June 19, 2008 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  2. seth

    Listen... I am the biggest Obama supporter out there, but I don't support him unconditionally (as I fear many Republicans support McCain).

    This is disappointing. If McCain had done this, I would be all over it, so I feel like I have to call Obama out on this one. Sorry, O.

    June 19, 2008 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  3. Marc

    Back talking to the Canadians, eh Barack?

    June 19, 2008 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  4. Emma, San Jose, CA

    Good for you, Senator Obama. You are a man of reason.

    June 19, 2008 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  5. Jim


    June 19, 2008 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  6. RANDY


    June 19, 2008 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  7. Bruce

    Free trade can be a good thing, unless it is used by a few American corporations to take over or exploit foreign economies to make products using cheap labor and no environmental oversight, leaving American workers in the lurch. We should make trade agreements that are good for America, not just good for a few select corporations.

    June 19, 2008 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  8. Don

    "Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," Obama told Fortune. Obama supporters this is your candidate word verbatim. For those of you who have difficulty understanding and/or processing english, amplified is a hyperbole which means exaggeration. Your candidate went after Clinton one of the best democratic presidents we have hard in a while and said his support of Nafta is the reason why people lost jobs. Just like he painted him as a racist-someone who has championed civil rights and all of his administration was black. Obama who does not have any policies of his own is now backing off with NAFTA.

    June 19, 2008 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  9. ao

    Pandering and lying – one area where ALL politicians don't change much.

    June 19, 2008 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  10. Tom in S.A.

    Another thing he's said that he's taking back. Speak and then think, that's Obama's way.

    June 19, 2008 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  11. Geoffrey MA

    Now, where are all the supporters who believe this man? Isn't it obvious that he is the biggest liar there is, and that there is nothing new about his "change" platform?

    Wake up people, and switch from Kool-Aid to Lemonade.

    June 19, 2008 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  12. Independent

    Rhetoric and Obama in the same sentence!? He finally admits what many of us have known all along?!

    Wow... probably the first honest thing he has said since he started this campaign.

    June 19, 2008 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  13. SDunn

    Wow CNN do you get everything from Huffington Post? If so then why aren't you stating the facts that his article was written in a very biased manner? The person who wrote the article is Author Nina Easton – who is married to Russ Schriefer, one-time media adviser to John McCain and Mitt Romney. She wrote a very misleading article, selectively using quotes to make it look like he's misleading people on NAFTA. Do your homework CNN, that's why you get paid the big bucks! MSM has really lost their bearings and especially you CNN.

    June 19, 2008 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  14. Belle2

    Well, at least he admits that he was lying! He may be inexperienced when it comes to governing this country but he is clearly an experienced liar. I believe the Democrats have a real knack for nominating the worst candidate they can find. I mean, Obama clearly came from under a rock.

    June 19, 2008 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  15. independent chris

    Nothing in this article points to anything new in Obama's oft-stated position on NAFTA. He has consistently said that he favors free markets and free trade agreements if they are in line with our interests and that since NAFTA is not, it must be changed.

    June 19, 2008 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  16. Teddy

    Barack Obama is just another typical politician. He is not different. I do not blame him. When he finds he can get financial advantage, he broke his promise to take public financing. Almost every politician breaks promise in politics. Remember Bush Sr. "Read my lips, no new taxes?". Do not blame him! Obama is just another politician who will do anything to win. He campains for a new type of politics is also just politics because he knows Americans want changes.

    That is why I pay more attentions to his actual proposals, not the words, changes, hope, and so on.

    June 19, 2008 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  17. Jon

    And you want me to believe him????????????? "NOT""""""!!!!!!

    June 19, 2008 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  18. Independant

    no, your a flip flopper. you tell the people of the state your campagning in what they want to hear (blaming everybody else for what has happened to them) but then SLOWLY afterwards try and get back to the policies that the country needs....

    vote McCain

    June 19, 2008 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  19. Thomas

    "Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," Obama told Fortune.

    FLIP FLOP FLIP FLOP... AKA say what the people WANT to here and then ever do it... AKA "Read my lips NO NEW TAXES"

    Change BAH

    June 19, 2008 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  20. Florida John

    "Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," Obama told Fortune.

    Hmmmmm. I wonder what will change if he becomes President?????

    June 19, 2008 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  21. unions are not stupid

    I love CNN and there bias made up headlines! They make it sound as though he is flip flopping like Mc Cain did on off shore oil drilling. He's position on this issue has been the same all along! he has stated at many debates and in many speeches that he does not think NAFTA or free trade can be accomplished it just needs to be rewritten so that it is fair and balanced for all people involved as right now it is taken away our jobs and giving us very little in return. I wish CNN would report facts and stop making up stories.

    June 19, 2008 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  22. Nausea

    The rank cynicism of this move staggers the imagination. Basically, what Obama is saying is that he doesn't have a very level head and that sometimes he lets hyperbole take over when things get tough. The candidate is hinting at his dishonesty on the matter and brushing it off as "overheated" rhetoric.

    This is change we can lie about.

    June 19, 2008 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  23. ho tc

    Obama finally shows his true colors.

    June 19, 2008 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  24. Darth Vadik, CA


    June 19, 2008 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  25. Ed

    FLIP FLOP FLIP FLOP. Listen up, America: we cannot afford to have an intern running our country at this critical time in our history.

    No WAFFLES '08

    June 19, 2008 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
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