Obama taps NAFTA architect

The first hard news of the Barack Obama era bodes well for Canada. Various U.S. media reports say the President-elect has asked Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a senior House Democrat, to be his chief of staff.

Emanuel is known in Washington circles as a smart political operator, who once worked as an inner-circle advisor to President Bill Clinton. For Canadians, the good news is that he was a key promoter of the North American Free Trade Agreement inside Clinton’s administration, and remains a thoughtful support of trade as a driver of prosperity, not a threat to economic security.

There’s every reason to expect he will act as a counterbalance in Obama’s White House against protectionist forces that might well rise up to push for changes to NAFTA or other measures that would hurt Canada’s trade interests.

Here’s part of what Emanuel said about trade in a Jan. 14, 2008 speech, entitled “A New Deal for a New Economy,” delivered to the Chicago Commercial Club’s Civic Committee:

“When people talk about trade, they are never talking about trade. They are never talking about trade. They are talking about their health care, their incomes, and their retirement security. You go to a John Deere plant, here in Illinois, everyone of these workers know that one out of three of their tractors are destined for an overseas market, so their job is tied to trade. Yet, it’s the most vehemently opposed workforce to globalization. Why?

“If you talk to them, just listen. They are worried about losing their health care. They are worried about losing their good paying job. And they are worried about losing their retirement security. It’s not about trade, it’s about everything else that trade affects, that every trade discussion is about. And that’s why we have to come up – for those of us who believe that globalization has been a net positive -we have to come up with an agenda, that deals with and helps advance the ability of globalization to continue down the path of success.

“Because in twenty years, the fact that we doubled the size of the economy, I think if we do what’s right, we can do that again. And we have the full potential to do it. And our greatest unmarked resources and capacity, and our greatest markets are right here at home. So we have to invest in the American people so they feel they have an opportunity to do as well in this globalized economy, as a number of people sitting in the room have done.

“If we do that we have a great chance at a great decade again. If we don’t, the American people are going to have a full stop on what’s going on as it relates to the last twenty years.”