Barack Obama accused Democratic presidential rival Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday of trying to walk away from a long record of support for NAFTA, the free trade agreement that he said has cost 50,000 jobs in Ohio, site of next week’s primary.
At the same time, he said attempts to repeal the trade deal “would probably result in more job losses than job gains in the United States.”
One day after Clinton angrily accused him of distorting her record on the North American Free Trade Agreement in mass mailings, the Illinois senator was eager to rekindle the long-distance debate, using passages from the former first lady’s book as well as her own words.
“Ten years after NAFTA passed, Senator Clinton said it was good for America,” Obama said. “Well, I don’t think NAFTA has been good for America — and I never have.”
“The fact is, she was saying great things about NAFTA until she started running for president,” Obama told an audience at a factory that makes wall board, located in a working class community west of Cleveland.
Later, at a rally in Toledo, he rebutted the former first lady’s statement that her husband had merely inherited NAFTA when he won the White House from former President George H.W Bush.
President Clinton “championed NAFTA,” passed it through Congress and signed it into law, Obama said.
A spokesman for Clinton, Phil Singer, said the former first lady was critical of NAFTA long before she ran for president. He cited remarks from March 2000 in which she said, “What happened to NAFTA I think was we inherited an agreement that we didn’t get everything we should have got out of it in my opinion. I think the NAFTA agreement was flawed.”
Singer also said that in 2004 in Illinois, Obama spoke positively of the trade agreement, saying the United States had “benefited enormously” from exports under NAFTA.
The trade agreement has long been unpopular in the industrial Midwest, where critics blame it for lost jobs and shuttered factories, many of which once employed union workers who tend to vote Democratic.
Ohio and Texas both hold primaries next week, with 334 delegates combined, and former President Clinton has said publicly his wife probably needs to win both of them if she is to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Vermont and Rhode Island also hold primaries on March 4, but have far fewer delegates and have not attracted nearly as much attention.
On another issue, Obama said he was not concerned that Republicans might attempt to depict him as unpatriotic if he becomes the Democratic nominee.
Asked about a series of events, such as not placing his hand over his heart during the national anthem, he said, “The way I will respond to it is with the truth. That I owe everything I am to this country.”
He also said patriotism had more than one definition, and that Republicans had presided over a war “in which our troops did not get the body armor they needed” or were sent into the war zone without enough training.
Polls show Clinton with a narrowing lead in Ohio, where trade has long been a sensitive issue.
Its political impact has long been obvious in the state, since Democratic Rep. Tom Sawyer voted for the agreement and then lost his seat a few years later in an election in which trade was the key issue.
Sawyer supports Obama and attended his public rally in Akron on Saturday. He declined a request for an interview.
Given that backdrop, the issue is the core of Obama’s drive to win the Ohio primary and possibly force Clinton from the race.
At the news conference, he said Clinton has “essentially presented herself as co-president during the Clinton years. Every good thing that happened she says she was a part of and so the notion that you can selectively pick what you take credit for and then run away from what isn’t politically convenient, that doesn’t make sense.”
On Saturday, Clinton called attention to her plan to fix problems with NAFTA and a commitment against any future trade deals “unless they are positive for American workers.”
To an audience of Boilermakers Union members and their families, Obama promised the same thing, with particular attention paid to labor and environmental concerns.
“Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that we can’t stop globalization in its tracks and that some of these jobs aren’t coming back,” he said. “But what I refuse to accept is that we have to stand idly by while workers watch their jobs get shipped overseas.”