Barack Obama has frequently called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) “a bad deal.” During one Democratic primary debate, Obama even said he would unilaterally “use the hammer of a potential opt-out” to “renegotiate” the entire treaty. But after he secured the nomination, Obama changed his tune, admitting that NAFTA was not so bad after all, and telling Nina Easton: “Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified.” If you find Obama’s rhetoric on trade inconsistent, do not expect to learn much from his voting record either. He has voted with the Bush Administration for free trade in Oman and supported free trade with Peru, but has opposed free trade with Panama, Colombia and South Korea. To be as generous as possible, Obama has a evolving position on trade.

Considering that the No. 1 issue in this election is the global economic downturn we are slipping into, one would think debate moderators would press the candidates to clarify their positions on trade. No such luck. We have had three debates so far (two presidential debates and one vice presidential debate). There have been approximately 100 questions directed at all four candidates over the course of the three debates. None have pressed the candidates to explain to the American people where they stand on free trade.

International trade has been one of the biggest drivers of economic growth in recent years. The one bright spot in the American economy this past year has been the continued growth in U.S. exports. Exports generated an impressive two-thirds of U.S. economic growth over the past year. With the Doha round of trade talks grounded, bilateral free trade agreements (like those Obama voted against for Panama, Colombia and South Korea) are one of the only options for expanding trade. Although they comprise only 7.5% of global GDP (not including the U.S.), the countries the U.S. has free trade agreements with accounted for more than 42% of U.S. exports. Shutting down free trade now would be disastrous for the U.S. economy. The last time the U.S. reverted to protectionism in a time of economic turmoil President Herbert Hoover’s Smoot-Hawley Tariff helped usher in the Depression. This is not the direction our country needs to go.

It is the direction the left wants to take us. Doing the bidding of her labor union masters, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) destroyed over thirty years of American credibility on trade when she gutted the legal framework of U.S. Trade Promotion Authority this April. The next president of the United States will have to fight hard against organized labor just to repair the damage Pelosi has caused, let alone advance new trade gains worldwide. Americans deserve to know where the next president stands on this issue. Hopefully they can get at least one question on it.

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