Obama's Shrugging Acceptance of Globalization


One of the odd things about the Obama campaign attacking Romney by connecting him to offshoring activities at Bain Capital is that Obama has never been a particularly vocal opponent of free trade, or a notably dedicated protectionist.

In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, written while Obama was a U.S. Senator, he notes that globalization is tough for workers that lose their jobs, and pays lip service to certain organized labor concerns about American firms employing workers overseas.

But he also talks to Bill Clinton's Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who tells him that while some U.S. workers might "face challenges" in a globalized world, he's "cautiously optimistic" that globalization will not ultimately be harmful to the overall U.S. economy. And Rubin very clearly warns that "any efforts at protectionism will be counterproductive" and will make the children of those seeking protectionist policies "worse off in the long run." Obama seems to basically agree:

I appreciated Rubin's acknowledgment that American workers might have legitimate cause for concern when it came to globalization; in my experience, most labor leaders have thought deeply about the issue and can't be dismissed as kneejerk protectionists.

Still, it was hard to deny Rubin's basic insight: We can try to slow globalization, but we can't stop it. The U.S. economy is now so integrated with the rest of the world, and digital commerce so widespread, that it's hard to even imagine, much less enforce, an effective regime of protectionism.

To be sure, Obama isn't the world's most devout free-trader. But as Daniel Drezner notes at Foreign Policy, the point here isn't really that Obama loves mercantilism, or plans to govern as an ardent anti-free trader. It's that he and his messaging team think it's a winning tactic to campaign as if maybe he does.