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By Alexander Lane October 15, 2008

Obama's been critical of NAFTA

During a discussion of climate change and energy imports during the third presidential debate, Sen. John McCain detoured briefly to Canada.

McCain attacked Sen. Barack Obama's position on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Here's his claim in context:            

"I think we can, for all intents and purposes, eliminate our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and Venezuelan oil. Canadian oil is fine," McCain said during the Oct. 15, 2008, debate. "By the way, when Senator Obama said he would unilaterally renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Canadians said, 'Yes, and we'll sell our oil to China.' You don't tell countries you're going to unilaterally renegotiate agreements with them."

What we take McCain's claim to mean is that Obama said he would renegotiate NAFTA whether or not Canada and Mexico – the other signatories to the trade agreement – want to do so, or renegotiate in such a way as to impose additional burdens on them but not on the United States.

It's true that Obama has been harshly critical of NAFTA on the campaign trail, citing shortfalls in its protections for workers and the environment. He has used words like "devastating" and "a big mistake" to describe the agreement.

Obama was particularly critical of NAFTA in February in the run-up to the Ohio Democratic primary. In a debate, he said, "We should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced."

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In a June 20, 2008 conference call with reporters, Obama surrogate Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat, said he was "absolutely confident Barack Obama will reopen the negotiations on NAFTA. I have been assured by him and his top economic advisers there is no question his position is constant and will stay that way on the North American Free Trade Agreement."

But would Obama do so "unilaterally"? In a June interview with Fortune magazine, he indicated he would not.

"I'm not a big believer in doing things unilaterally," he told the magazine of his plans on NAFTA. "I'm a big believer in opening up a dialogue and figuring out how we can make this work for all people."

It's difficult to reconcile these two stands. There's little indication Canada wants to renegotiate the agreement, so it's not clear how Obama would do so without initiating the negotiation "unilaterally."

Perhaps it was a bit misleading for McCain to highlight Obama's harsher rhetoric on NAFTA instead of his softer stance. But only a bit – the fact is, Obama has often spoken of NAFTA in such a way that a fair listener would conclude he would press to renegotiate it regardless of how the other parties feel.

Characterizing that as a "unilateral" renegotiation, though not the clearest language in the world, was a pretty fair shorthand for McCain to use. We find his claim Mostly True.

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