Maybe being accused of being an "elitist" is a good thing.
After taking hits from Democratic primary foe Hillary Clinton and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain for suggesting, somewhat clumsily, that Americans who are suffering economically may turn "bitter," Barack Obama has come back with a speech that goes to the heart of the current crisis.
Speaking on trade policy to the Alliance for American Manufacturing today in Pittsburgh this morning, the Illinois senator said what he has been needing to say for more than a month: He understands that America needs a new approach to trade -- an approach that breaks with those of the Bush and Clinton administrations -- if this country is going to begin to address its many economic challenges.
And he did it in the context of the current debate about elitism.
"Senator Clinton and Senator McCain are singing from the same hymn book, saying that I'm 'out of touch' – an 'elitist' – because I said a lot of folks are bitter about their economic circumstances," Obama explained. "Now it may be that I chose my words badly. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last. But when I hear my opponents, both of whom have spent decades in Washington, saying I'm out of touch, it's time to cut through their rhetoric and look at the reality."
The rhetoric -- especially Clinton's remake of herself as a populist champion of fair-trade responses that she opposed as the first lady, a senate candidate and a senator -- is designed to suggest that Obama is not in tune with workers who have seen their jobs, their industries and their communities devastated by trade policies that favored Wall Street over Main Street.
But Obama is not willing to accept the characterization. And he has challenged it with a speech that -- while it certainly will not get parallel coverage -- is important as his recent addresses of racial division and foreign policy.
"Senator Clinton and Senator McCain question my respect for the workers of Pennsylvania. Well, let me tell you how I believe you demonstrate your respect. You do it by telling the truth and keeping your word, so folks can know that where you stand today is where you'll stand tomorrow," said Obama. "The truth is, trade is here to stay. We live in a global economy. For America's future to be as bright as our past, we have to compete. We have to win."
Then Obama did something that rarely happens in the trade debate.
He spoke to worried American employers and workers as adults.
He treated their concerns seriously.
Not every job that has left is coming back. And not every job lost is due to trade –automation has made plants more efficient so they can make the same amount of steel with few workers. These are the realities.
I also don't oppose all trade deals. I voted for two of them because they have the worker and environmental agreements I believe in. Some of you disagreed with me on this but I did what I thought was right.
That's the truth. But let me tell you what else I believe in:
For America to win, American workers have to win, too. If CEO pay keeps rising, while the standard of living for their workers continues to decline, that's not a win for America.
That's why I opposed NAFTA, it's why I opposed CAFTA, and it's why I said any trade agreement I would support had to contain real, enforceable standards for workers.
That's why I believe the Permanent Normalized Trade agreement with China didn't do enough to ensure fairness and compliance.
Now, you can have a debate about whether my position is right or wrong. But here's what you can't do. You can't spend the better part of two decades campaigning for NAFTA and PNTR for China, and then come here to Pennsylvania, and tell the steelworkers you've been with them all along. You can't say you are opposed to the Columbia Trade deal, while your key strategist is working for the Columbian government to get the deal passed.
That's not respect. That's just more of the same old Washington politics. And we can't afford more of the same.
We need real change, and that's what I'm offering. I'm offering a new, more transparent and more inclusive path on trade so we can help promote an integrated global economy where the costs and benefits are distributed more equitably. And it starts with a principle I've always believed in – that trade should work for all Americans.
That's why we need to finally confront the issue of trade with China. As I've said before, America and the world can benefit from trade with China. But trade with China will only be good for you if China itself plays by the rules and acts as a positive force for balanced world growth.
Seeing the living standards of the Chinese people improve is a good thing – good because we want a stable China, and good because China can be a powerful market for American exports. But too often, China has been competing in ways that are tilting the playing field.
It's not just that China is following the path taken by so many other countries before it, and dumping goods into our market while not opening their own markets, something I've spoken out against. It's not just that they're violating intellectual property rights. They're also grossly undervaluing their currency, and giving their goods yet another unfair advantage. Each year they've had the chance, the Bush administration has failed to do anything about this. That's unacceptable. That's why I co-sponsored the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act. And that's why as President, I'll use all the diplomatic avenues open to me to insist that China stop manipulating its currency.
We also have to make sure that whatever goods we're importing are safe for our families. We all saw the harm that was caused by lead toys from China that were reaching our store shelves. A few months ago, when I called for a ban on any toys that have more than a trace amount of lead, an official at China's foreign ministry said I was being "unobjective, unreasonable, and unfair." But I don't think protecting our children is "unreasonable" – I think it's our obligation as parents and as Americans.
When it comes to trade, there's no one-size-fits-all approach. If countries are committed to reciprocity, if they are abiding by basic rules of the road, then we should welcome trade. Many poor countries need access to our markets and pose no threat to our workers.
But what all trade agreements I negotiate as President will have in common is that they'll all put American workers first. We won't ignore violence against union organizers in Columbia, or the non-tariff barriers that keep U.S. cars out of South Korea.
And we won't just negotiate fair trade agreements, we'll make sure they're being fully enforced. George Bush has been far too slow to press American rights. That's an outrage. When our trading partners sign an agreement with the Obama administration, you can trust that we'll hold them to it.