AT HIS BEST, Sen. Barack Obama is a tribune of hope, an eloquent politician-prophet who unabashedly calls on Americans to remember that "we rise or fall as one nation." He is the Democratic Party's presidential front-runner today in part because, to many people, he forthrightly identifies the country's problems but in a language of hope, optimism and generosity.
And then there are moments like last Wednesday, when Mr. Obama struck some unusually sour notes in what was billed as a major economic policy address. Yes, there were the trademark invocations of "shared sacrifice and shared prosperity." But Mr. Obama's remarks were also tinged with an angrier, and intellectually sloppier, message. We thought we'd heard the last of class warfare and populism when former North Carolina senator John Edwards finally bowed out of the race. In his speech, Mr. Obama quoted Mr. Edwards approvingly; he then echoed him in implying that he could pay for new domestic programs with an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and in exaggerating the "millions" of job losses attributable to trade agreements. Mr. Obama even seemed to draw a line connecting the current subprime mortgage crunch to "decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China."
These simplifications might help Mr. Obama beat out Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the dubious prize of an Edwards endorsement. They might play well in Ohio, where foreclosures are rampant, some plants have shut because of international competition -- and the Democrats hold a crucial primary on March 4. But they are not worthy of a candidate whose past speeches and writings demonstrate that he understands the benefits of free trade. "I won't stand here and tell you that we can -- or should -- stop free trade," Mr. Obama declared, candidly, then quickly promised that "I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers." It's not clear what he means by this. Mr. Obama supported the Peru Free Trade Agreement, which contained such protections, but he opposes the proposed pact with Colombia, which has labor and environmental provisions similar to those in the Peru deal. To account for the seeming contradiction, Mr. Obama echoes organized labor's exaggerated complaints about human rights violations in Colombia. He doesn't support the Korea Free Trade Agreement, which promises the greatest benefits of all the pending trade deals to the U.S. economy -- but is fiercely opposed by a narrow slice of the auto industry and the auto workers union.
Thanks in large part to former president Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party abandoned protectionism and embraced the challenges of economic globalization. Still, like the campaign of 2004, in which eventual nominee John Kerry railed against "Benedict Arnold CEOs," the 2008 Democratic primary is in large part a contest for the support of the party's most anti-trade elements (especially labor unions) and thus has prompted populist rhetoric from the major candidates, who feared being outflanked by Mr. Edwards. Until now, Mr. Obama had not been the worst offender in this regard. Ms. Clinton has been egregiously quick to recast herself as a trade skeptic; her first response to Mr. Obama's speech was to issue a press release denying that she had said some nice things about NAFTA in the past, as Mr. Obama asserted. But its doubtful that either the Illinois senator or Ms. Clinton, as president, would actually adopt the entire anti-trade agenda of the labor unions whose support they now seek. All the more reason to be disappointed at the posture they are taking now.
Other editorials in the Ideas Primary series can be found here.