“Pander” is a nasty word. It means to “gratify or indulge an immoral or disgraceful desire, need, or habit, or a person with such a desire.”
Yet the TV host Steve Paikin (see photo) just used that term on the air as if it were not pejorative. He was referring to the current “Naftagate” scandal that may turn out to cost Barack Obama the US presidency. It certainly seems to have cost him victory in Ohio last week.
Unfortunately, nothing that Obama has done yet has cleaned up his image, and I think he needs to do so for this is not a temporary problem, as he may suppose. Even I, who adore Obama, have to believe now that he was indeed pandering in his speeches about renegotiating or even ending that free trade agreement.
In ordinary circumstances, what he did would be considered normal politicking. You promise the voters whatever they want, even though you know you can’t keep your promise. But Obama has promised something more honest than that, and he cannot afford to slip into deception.
Yes, Stephen Harper should be required to punish his henchmen for disclosing what Obama’s economic adviser said in confidence. But it’s too late now to reverse the effects; Obama’s credibility is damaged. Indeed, the press does not seem to know even yet what happened. One TV analyst the other day said that Obama actually had not known that his adviser had had the meeting with the Canadian consul in Chicago. The papers had stated originally that it was a meeting at the Canadian Embassy, and Obama denied that such a meeting had been held. Did he know about the real meeting in Chicago? If so, he was being disingenuous. The same pundit claimed that the adviser had gone to the meeting without telling Obama or getting his authorization, and that Obama should have fired him for doing so.
I haven’t heard since then whether or not Obama had known about the actual meeting or whether the adviser had incorrectly represented Obama’s views. He needs to clean this up, needs to tell what happened and what he really intends to do about Nafta if elected president.
Personally, I don’t know what should be done about the trade agreement. I think the whole effort to appear opposed to Nafta is quite unrealistic. You can’t re-open a treaty of that kind without renegotiating some sticky points that you’d rather not touch.
But that’s not the problem, exactly. I think Obama should never have promised to fix Ohio’s problems by revising Nafta because, in fact, it’s too late to fix them. Those jobs have already gone and are not coming back, no matter what people do. I don’t think the jobs have come to Canada, though it is true that Canada’s unemployment rate is at a 30-year low, whereas the US unemployment is getting worse, along with the rest of the US economy. But the missing Ohio jobs probably went to Mexico or another less developed country, not to Canada. He should have said that in the first place — that it’s too late to reverse the effects of Nafta, if indeed Nafta is to blame for these job losses. I'll bet that's what he really believes. To say otherwise is to pander.
Today I was reading Joseph Stiglitz’s book, Making Globalization Work. He says that the proponents of free trade (including President Clinton, who pushed the deal through) claimed that the US didn’t want jobs of that kind anyhow. They didn’t mind letting them go to underdeveloped countries because they would be replaced with better jobs in the knowledge and service sector. And indeed, for the first few years, that was what was actually going on. Unemployment did not immediately appear in the manufacturing belt that is now called “the rust belt.”
There are excellent moral reasons for wishing this theory had been correct. It is better to help Third World countries get ahead by shipping jobs to them and replacing them with new and better jobs in the First World. That is more moral than protectionism, which is what the Democrats are all promising now — and many Canadian politicians too.
But apart from morality, it is simply not practical to shut the barn door now. The jobs have gone and will not return. The claim of both Democratic candidates is mistaken that the trade agreements need to be rewritten to protect workers’ rights and environmental effects. Canada’s labor and environmental practices are not inferior to that of the US, so that’s not the true nature of the problem.
The real problem is that the great new sophisticated jobs are not being offered to the workers in Ohio and other rust belt areas. Or else the workers have not acquired the new skills necessary to perform such jobs. The high-paying jobs are also moving abroad — not to Canada but to India, for example, where there are plenty of newly trained engineers and scientists. That skills upgrading has to be part of the solution.
Obama mentioned some of these truths in a speech to a junior college in Ohio. I think it must have been a speech that one of his writers had just prepared for him, because he sounded as if he hadn’t read it before. It was “cold copy,” as radio announcers say. It never incorporated into the speeches he gave to a big rally.
So I guess he really was “pandering” to voters, though one can't blame the voters for their “immoral or disgraceful desires” for jobs. And to some extent a politician can be excused for such pandering, for it is hard to give a complete analysis of certain complex problems to a huge audience. Obama likes to inspire people to hope. But there are times when the truth is not upbeat, and when there are no simple solutions. I think the job losses in Ohio constitute such a problem. Politicians know not to wade into a topic without glib answers that will satisfy the audiences.
Still, there are several unanswered questions about this Nafta affair that will haunt Obama throughout the rest of his campaign unless he addresses it squarely enough to put it to rest.
And as for me, do I believe in Nafta? I never did fully decide, even then, and my convictions still have never become firm.