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. jp/michigan

    How are you going to explain yourself to the hard working men and women who have lost their jobs due to NAFTA? You tell them one thing to get nominated and another to become President. May be we too should take another look at you for President and maybe we will change our minds!

    June 19, 2008 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  2. jerrysf

    Again – no real "change"...just say what you need to when you need to. How can people not see completely through this joke of a candidate?

    June 19, 2008 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  3. The Austrian

    This isn't overheated; this is utterly contradictory.

    Why can't we get a politician that sticks to what he actually believes? Oh yeah, we did have one in Ron Paul. Looks like nobody wants that kind of moral fortitude.

    June 19, 2008 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  4. vic nashville,Tn

    5 news about Obama in CNN Political Ticker Today from morning to After noon
    CNN is independent ?

    June 19, 2008 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  5. uncle shawn

    where then is the CHANGE ?

    June 19, 2008 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  6. obamabot

    renegotiate until nafta is fair for everyone,or get rid of it.

    June 19, 2008 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  7. Jerry

    This picture needs to be changed for another. It looks like he is holding his and up as if saying "sig hile."

    June 19, 2008 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  8. FEDUP

    Flip-flop put credence to that wink, wink back awhile ago, doesn't it? What a liar!

    June 19, 2008 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  9. Student for OBAMA 08!!!

    Can someone please explain NAFTA? I really don't get what is does and why it's bad. Thanks

    June 19, 2008 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  10. Dave

    To all you Obama supporters. Did you not see this flip-flop coming?
    My problem with Obama was not his color or if he was or was not a Muslim, although that seems to be all the media and some idiots are concerned with. It was that, the limited track record he does have did not indicate a strong committment to the economy. But thank you all you "Newbie Democrats" (college students and African Americans) for pushing into the nomination someone who is going to do nothing to improve the quality of life for everyone. Maybe next time you will realize the world is much bigger then yourself!

    June 19, 2008 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  11. Big Texan

    What! Another wink wink? I think not! Just another political adjustment to appeal to all wings! I tell ya, politics is a balancing game. Obama should be careful not to be perceived as a flip flopper. Anyway we still say:

    Psi Se Puede

    June 19, 2008 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  12. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    I guess he was against NAFTA before he was for it; or was he for NAFTA before he was against it? At least he admits he's just like other politicians. So much for change.

    June 19, 2008 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  13. Joan J

    This doesn't matter. Obama has already bought the union endorsements. The unions don't care if Obama sells out their workers so long as the union leaders get a seat at the table. Democrats have already made a deal with the devil, and after 8 years of Bush, the Democrats don't really care what position Obama takes, so long as he has a (D) after his name.

    June 19, 2008 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  14. John from LA

    Explain away-That's all he does-deflect and then backpeddle-yes the candidate for change!!!

    I hope the media takes this one on and runs with it!!!-this candidate is UNBELIEVABLE!!!-liar!

    June 19, 2008 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  15. James, SC

    Way to go Senator Obama. More honest and straight talk. We all know that NAFTA can not be radically changed without taking a full analysis of its effects on our nation. I believe that you will negociate the proper change needed to bring fair exchange to our country.

    June 19, 2008 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  16. Tired of W, OH

    Watch all the repubs try to spin this as Obama being pro-NAFTA. He knows that there are problems with NAFTA that need fixed. Problems that neither Clinton nor bush had the guts to fix.

    June 19, 2008 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  17. Chut Pata

    The fact is:

    1. NAFTA was devastating for some people of the USA while benefited the businesses of some. Ironically, the people who suffered will vote for the party that is influenced by these benefitted businesses.

    2. The NAFTA process can not be reversed. People who suffered should be adjusted to benefit from the benefits of the businesses who benefited.

    Obama has stated both of the above but will be seen as a hypocrite if what he said was taken out of context.

    June 19, 2008 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  18. Jack

    That sounds a lot like what Goolsby had told Canadian officicals he would do once he sewed up the nomination and that Obama denied being true. Hmmmm?

    June 19, 2008 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  19. D

    See, just talk!!!!

    June 19, 2008 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  20. JK Ashburn, VA

    He's already admitting he has flip-flopped? Give him credit for honesty but I wonder how you lefties out there feel about this. He's won the nomination and now he's abandoning his promises and moving to the right. Soon, he'll be suggesting US troops may be in Iraq for 50 more years.

    This is the kind of "change" he was talking about? Changing his mind?

    June 19, 2008 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  21. Gobama

    It would have been nice if media wasn't a business, which seeks to create the news for the sake of advertisement dollars.

    NAFTA is going to be revisited for environmental standards and the like, and to ensure that it is a WIN-WIN agreement for American workers, etc.

    Nothing in Obama's present position is suggesting otherwise.

    Softening rhetoric DOES NOT MEAN relenting on stated goals! Gosh!

    In campaigns, there is a lot of umph behind statements.
    Removing the umph after the campaign DOES NOT mean going back on stated goals.

    That logical conclusion would not be hard for real journalists to comprehend.

    June 19, 2008 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  22. Jose'

    Waffles, boy, Obama loves Waffles

    There ain't enough waffles in the country for this guy.

    He makes Slick Willy look like a consistent man of his word!

    June 19, 2008 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  23. JOYCE

    is ok if it is done right and monitored to do right

    go bama

    June 19, 2008 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  24. Joe Regis

    NAFTA needs to be renegotiated

    We can add more countries to secure the export sector and potentialy

    eliminate our trade deficit.

    The current trade imbalance is not sustainable.

    Go Obama go!

    June 19, 2008 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  25. J.C.

    Can we hear what McCain thinks of NAFTA?
    We need to compare them and independent nominees for a final decision. Thanks!

    June 19, 2008 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
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