» This Story:Read +|Watch +| Comments
Facebook Twitter Your Phone Friendfeed

NAFTA Renegotiation Must Wait, Obama Says

President Warns Against Protectionism

During their meeting in Ottawa, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to cooperate on free trade efforts.
During their meeting in Ottawa, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to cooperate on free trade efforts. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
Discussion Policy
Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009; Page A02

OTTAWA, Feb. 19 -- President Obama warned on Thursday against a "strong impulse" toward protectionism while the world suffers a global economic recession and said his election-year promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement on behalf of unions and environmentalists will have to wait.

This Story

Obama made the comments as he stood with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his first trip abroad as president. The two pledged cooperation on efforts to stimulate the economy, fight terrorism in Afghanistan and develop clean energy technology.

In a joint news conference, Obama said he wants to find a way to keep his campaign pledge to toughen labor and environmental standards -- and told Harper so -- but stressed that nothing should disrupt the free flow of trade between neighbors.

"Now is a time where we've got to be very careful about any signals of protectionism," the president said. "Because, as the economy of the world contracts, I think there's going to be a strong impulse on the part of constituencies in all countries to see if we -- they can engage in beggar-thy-neighbor policies."

The president's message served as a reminder of last year's private assessment by Canadian officials that then-candidate Obama's frequent criticism of NAFTA was nothing more than campaign speeches aimed at chasing support among Rust Belt union workers.

"Much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy," the Canadians concluded in a memo after meeting with Austan Goolsbee, a senior campaign aide and now a member of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.

When the memo became public, Obama advisers rejected the idea as absurd and insisted that he was serious about changing NAFTA. Obama even suggested that the United States might opt out of NAFTA if the standards could not be improved to the nation's satisfaction.

But some longtime observers of the U.S.-Canada relationship said Obama's current position appears to confirm the impression that Canadian officials got from the meeting with Goolsbee.

"It sounds like [Goolsbee] was right," said former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci (R), who served as U.S. ambassador to Canada during George W. Bush's first term. "It looks like [President Obama has] softened that quite a bit, to put it mildly."

That could anger some of Obama's staunchest labor supporters, who blame NAFTA for sending American jobs oversees by not requiring a level playing field in the areas of labor and the environment.

But some of those allies said Thursday that they are giving the president more time to make good on his promise and praised Obama for finding a sophisticated way to express support for trade and changes to NAFTA.

"I am happy for him to frame his way of positioning the issue any way he wants, as long as he actually delivers on the issue," said Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division. "If down the road Obama doesn't deliver on the policy, there will be a whole lot of really upset people."


CONTINUED     1        >

» This Story:Read +|Watch +| Comments

More North America Coverage

America at War

America at War

Full coverage U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

facebook

Connect Online

Share and comment on Post world news on Facebook and Twitter.

Immigration Debate

Immigration Debate

Immigration reform proposals before Congress have sparked a nationwide political debate.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company