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Obama denies assuring Canada on trade pact

The candidate says his stance isn't just political show, as a memo says.

Associated Press
Published March 4, 2008


SAN ANTONIO - Sen. Barack Obama said Monday that his campaign never gave Canada back-channel assurances that his harsh words about the North American Free Trade Agreement were for political show - despite the disclosure of a Canadian memo indicating otherwise.

According to the memo, obtained by the Associated Press, Obama's senior economic adviser told Canadian officials in Chicago that the debate over free trade in the Democratic presidential primary campaign was "political positioning" and that Obama was not really protectionist.

The adviser, Austan Goolsbee, said his comments to those officials were misinterpreted by the author, Joseph DeMora, who works for the Canadian consulate in Chicago.

In Carrollton, Texas, Obama told reporters, "Nobody reached out to the Canadians to try to assure them of anything."

Asked why he had appeared to deny a report last week that such a meeting had taken place, Obama said, "That was the information I had at the time."

The original report by CTV in Canada suggested an Obama emissary had reached out to officials at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. Embassy officials artfully denied any such contact had been made with them.

As it turned out, the meeting took place in Chicago, with Canadian Consul General Georges Rioux and DeMora taking notes.

Obama said that one of his advisers had been invited by someone at the consulate to visit and discuss trade.

"The Canadian Embassy confirmed that he said everything I said on the campaign trail," Obama asserted.

"We think the terms of NAFTA have to be altered" to strengthen environmental and labor protections, he said.

The memo says: "Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S. economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign."

It went on: "He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."

Goolsbee disputed the characterization.

"This thing about 'it's more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans,' that's this guy's language," Goolsbee said of DeMora. "He's not quoting me.

"I certainly did not use that phrase in any way," he said.

NAFTA is widely opposed in economically depressed Ohio, which holds its presidential primary today and is a battleground between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Both candidates said in a debate in Cleveland last week that they would use the threat of pulling out of NAFTA to persuade Canada and Mexico to negotiate more protections for workers and the environment in the agreement.

"On NAFTA," the memo said, "Goolsbee suggested that Obama is less about fundamentally changing the agreement and more in favour of strengthening/clarifying language on labor mobility and environment and trying to establish these as more 'core' principles of the agreement."

Goolsbee said that sentence is true and consistent with Obama's position. But he said other portions of the memo are inaccurate.

Goolsbee said he told the Canadians that Obama is not a protectionist but that the Illinois senator tries to strike a balance between the economic struggles of working Americans and recognizing that free trade is good for the economy.

[Last modified March 4, 2008, 00:12:14]

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