Obama bashes Clinton on NAFTA

SUMMARY: Barack Obama charges Hillary Clinton with flip-flopping on NAFTA. He repeats a false detail, while getting the big picture right.

In Ohio, where union workers are a major presence and the manufacturing economy is hurting, Sen. Barack Obama attacked Sen. Hillary Clinton for her position on the North American Free Trade Agreement, called NAFTA.

"Yesterday, Sen. Clinton also said I'm wrong to point out that she once supported NAFTA," Obama said. "But the fact is, she was saying great things about NAFTA until she started running for president. A couple years after it passed, she said NAFTA was a 'free and fair trade agreement' and that it was 'proving its worth.' And in 2004, she said, 'I think, on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York state and America.' "

In a separate mailing, the Obama campaign quoted Clinton as saying that the North American Free Trade Agreement had been a "boon" to the U.S. economy.

The Clinton campaign says Obama is wrong, that Clinton was critical of NAFTA "long before she started running for president." They also dispute that she said used the word "boon" to praise it.

We looked into Clinton's past remarks on NAFTA and concluded that she has changed her tune, from once speaking favorably about it to now saying the agreement needs "fixing." But we also found that she never used the word "boon."

The agreement goes back to the 1992 presidential campaign when Bill Clinton ran against incumbent President George H.W. Bush. On Aug. 12 of that year, Bush finished negotiating NAFTA with Mexico and Canada. During the campaign, Bill Clinton said he would support NAFTA if elected, but would demand supplemental agreements to protect worker rights, the environment and sudden import surges.

After Clinton won the presidency, his administration negotiated the side agreements and made NAFTA one of its top priorities. Vice President Al Gore memorably debated Ross Perot about NAFTA on CNN's "Larry King Live." Congress approved the agreements, and it was hailed as a major political victory for the new president.

As first lady, Hillary Clinton publicly supported her husband's position. In 1996, in a visit with unionized garment workers, she said the words Obama now quotes. "I think everybody is in favor of free and fair trade. I think NAFTA is proving its worth," said Clinton, according to an Associated Press report.

At the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Clinton thanked corporations for furthering NAFTA's goals during an address, adding, "It is certainly clear that we have not by any means finished the job that has begun."

Clinton wrote positively of her husband's efforts on NAFTA in her memoir "Living History," published in 2003:

"Creating a free trade zone in North America — the largest free trade zone in the world — would expand U.S. exports, create jobs and ensure that our economy was reaping the benefits, not the burdens, of globalization. Although unpopular with labor unions, expanding trade opportunities was an important administration goal."

During a 2004 teleconference on funding cuts for job training, Clinton was asked whether NAFTA should be revisited. She replied, "I think that we have to enforce the trade rules that are inherent" in NAFTA. "I think on balance NAFTA has been good for New York and America, but I also think that there are a number of areas where we're not dealt with in an upfront way in dealing with our friend to the north, Canada, which seems to be able to come up with a number of rationales for keeping New York agricultural products out of Canada," she said.

Today, Clinton's campaign Web site says plainly, "NAFTA was negotiated more than 14 years ago, and Hillary believes it has not lived up to its promises."

At a debate hosted by CNN in November 2007, Clinton said, "NAFTA was a mistake to the extent that it did not deliver on what we had hoped it would, and that's why I call for a trade timeout."

We should note that Clinton biographer Sally Bedell Smith has said that as first lady, Clinton opposed NAFTA privately but supported it publicly because it was important to her husband politically. However, this is not a point Clinton made in her own autobiography, where she wrote in favor of NAFTA.

Now, there's the issue of whether Clinton changed her mind because she was running for president. Clinton surrogates say she made remarks against NAFTA as early as March 2000 when she was running for Senate in New York. We could not confirm those remarks independently. But, as we've noted, she made pro-NAFTA remarks as late as 2003 (her autobiography) and 2004 (a teleconference).

We won't say Clinton was a huge cheerleader for NAFTA, but she did speak favorably of it. And now she says it needs to be fixed. Was running for president the cause of this switch, or was it a gradual change of thinking? It's hard to say; the balance of evidence does not point to a harsh pivot point. But when we balance her previous statements against her more recent statements, we find that she has changed her sentiments when she speaks about NAFTA. We rated Obama's charge True .

But on the question of whether she ever said it was a "boon": The Obama campaign got that phrase from an issues summary in the Sept. 11, 2006, edition of Newsday in which the Long Island newspaper, in its own words, stated that Clinton believed the trade agreement to be a boon to the economy. Now that it's become an issue in the campaign, Newsday says it is not fair to attribute the word to Clinton.

PolitiFact might be inclined to give Obama a Barely True ruling for this one, but since he has consistently used the word with no evidence — even going so far as to say she said it "just last year," we find the statement False .