Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Obama, free trade, and leadership: Who is that masked man?

Posted by sanityinjection on June 18, 2008

To those too young to get the reference, it’s what people used to ask about the Lone Ranger. Our modern day identity query concerns Barack Obama. As he continues to take the political world by storm, we want to know who he is and what he stands for.

Obama’s public statements on free trade and NAFTA in particular help us to understand him.  If you recall, Obama took a somehwat protectionist stand during the primary, criticizing NAFTA and threatening to pull out of it unless it is renegotiated. This alarmed our neighbors, Mexico and Canada, enough that Obama’s economic advisor had to go to Canada and reassure them that it was all talk. But he got caught and Obama had to disavow him, embarrassingly.

Now Obama, in a new Fortune magazine interview, is tacking back toward the free trade side of things, suggesting that he may have overdone it with the rhetoric a little on NAFTA. So what does Obama *really* think about free trade?

Having observed the man for some months now, this is what I see. Obama is a smart person. Smart enough to know how to play the political game of pandering to the people he needs to win over, but also smart enough to understand the benefits of free trade. He’s also a global thinker – he lived in Indonesia and has relatives in Kenya. He knows what international trade means for the standard of living of people in those countries.

So I do not think, in his heart, Obama is a protectionist. But his voting record in the Senate shows that he will only vote for a trade agreement if the unions don’t oppose it. It may be that he does not feel strongly enough about the issue to take a political hit over it.

And therein lies the heart of the matter and its importance to us. A great leader is someone who is willing to part company with the special interests that support him or her in order to do what he or she feels is right for the country. A perfect example from Obama’s party is Harry Truman. As President, Truman ticked off every group that supported him – the Missouri Democratic machine, the unions, Southern whites – and made decisions that he thought were in the best interests of America. As a result, he almost didn’t get elected in ’48, and couldn’t run again in ’52 because he was so deeply unpopular with voters of every political stripe. Yet some of those decisions, like de-segregating the military, turned out to be not only right, but exactly what needed to be done.

Barack Obama is still very young in political terms. Up until now, he may not have encountered many situations where his convictions require him to part company with powerful supporters (Reverend Wright does not count as “powerful”.) How he responds in such a situation will speak volumes about his character and his leadership. For now, at least to me, this is an unknown.

McCain, on the other hand, has virtually made a career out of giving the finger to his own party and the special interests that usually support Republicans, knowing it could hurt him politically, when he felt it was important to do so. But again, he’s had a longer career in public service, and by his own admission, it wasn’t until his brush with the Keating Five scandal that he really began to understand how problematic the influence of special interests can be.

If Obama turns out to be cast from the mold of Truman and McCain in this area, then America may not fare too badly over the coming years regardless of which candidate is elected President.

Preview of the Fortune interview with Obama is here:


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