Obama’s first appointment–Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel–has been widely reported in the corporate and progressive media. In most of the coverage, the focus has been on Rahm’s political style and the hard line antics that earned him the nickname “Rahmbo.”
In this vein, an Associated Press article that ran in The Grand Rapids Press on Friday–“Obama’s First Pick: ‘Rahmbo’“–is representative of much of the coverage. The article focuses almost exclusively on Emanuel’s personality and his political style. For example, it includes a story about how Emanuel once mailed a Democratic pollster a dead fish to express his disapproval. However, there was little exploration of his politics.
Emanuel is a centrist democrat who worked in the Clinton White House before leaving for the private sector (where he earned millions as an investment banker) and then joining Congress. He supported the congressional resolution that authorized the use of military force against Iraq, is a strong supporter of Israel, is aligned with the Democratic Leadership Council, and has what can best be described as a hawkish–or imperialist–view of US foreign policy.
But, it is Emanuel’s role in securing the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that seems most at odds with Obama’s campaign and the economic debate over NAFTA during the 2008 Democratic Party primary.
Emanuel and the Passage of NAFTA
The passage of NAFTA under President Bill Clinton was one of Clinton’s most controversial actions. It pitted environmentalists, organized labor, and activists against the Democratic Party’s corporate backers and ushered in a debate that still rages to this day. Many of these constituencies saw the passage of NAFTA as a betrayal and point to job losses, weakened environmental standards, and other problems as proof of their critique.
In facing down stiff opposition to the trade agreement from the Democratic Party’s base and grassroots groups, Clinton turned to Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel cut his teeth as a fundraiser during Clinton’s 1991 presidential campaign. Following the campaign, Emanuel become one of Clinton’s key operatives in the fight to pass NAFTA. Emanuel worked closely with the so-called “NAFTA czar”–William Daley, the son of late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley (and a friend of Obama’s who was recently appointed to his transition team)–in mustering enough votes for the trade agreement. In The Selling of ‘Free Trade,’ Emanuel is remembered for his “aggressive” work on NAFTA and being a critical part of the administration’s NAFTA working group. Emanuel lobbied for votes, helped direct the media strategy (including one targeted leak to undercut news of an anti-NAFTA politician’s election in Canada), and participated in the administration’s campaign to get the agreement passed–over public opposition–no matter what the cost. An October 26,1993 article in The Hotline said that the White House’s NAFTA effort “came to life” under Emanuel, who served as its “operational director.”
“You know, politics is about mending and tacking and so on, and setting your priorities. We were a very determined administration. We made a lot of compromises to get NAFTA passed and a lot of deals to get NAFTA passed.”
Emanuel’s Support for NAFTA and Obama’s Position: Not that Strange After All?
In his statement announcing Rahm Emanuel’s appointment, Obama makes no mention of Emanuel’s support of NAFTA–even when he highlights his work during the Clinton administration. Instead, Obama says:
“During his seven years in the Clinton White House, Rahm was the point man on some of the most difficult issues, from the passage of landmark anti-crime legislation to the expansion of health care coverage for children.”
Most press coverage of Emanuel’s appointment has mentioned that he played a key role in the passage of NAFTA, but none has explored how this may be at odds with Obama’s campaign.
During the primaries, Obama aggressively criticized NAFTA. However, following the end of the primary, Obama began to tone down his rhetoric and appeared to retreat on his NAFTA rhetoric. In an interview with Fortune magazine, Obama stated that much of the anti-NAFTA rhetoric was “overheated and amplified” and that he is a supporter of free trade and is looking for ways to make free trade agreements work for all.
Emanuel now has issued mild criticisms of NAFTA and has said that it would be negotiated differently now, but that the NAFTA issue is a distraction from larger problems with the economy. These mild criticisms are a lot like what Obama has said and are in many ways similar to Obama’s position: it isn’t the logic of free trade agreements and neoliberalism that is wrong, it’s how they are done. For his part, Rahm earlier this year urged the passage of several pending neoliberal trade agreements.
Rahm and NAFTA: Does it even Matter?
There is certainly a progressive case to be made against Rahm and a such critique certainly has merit. On issues from NAFTA to the Iraq War, Rahm’s position has been disappointing or at odds with what many progressives believe.
However, many progressives are defending Rahm as being necessary to navigate the difficult inter-workings of Washington politics. They argue that Rahm will not set policy priorities, but simply reflect Obama’s goals and direct his staff. Still, the Chief of Staff is responsible for determining the president’s schedule and controlling access to him–which gives Emanuel a key role in determining the voices Obama will hear.
At the same time, Emanuel is representative of some of the worst of Clinton’s politics and the rightward shift of the Democratic Party over the past two decades. Emanuel’s appointment–coupled with the appointment of a slew of former Clinton administration officials to Obama’s transition team–serve as important reminder that progressives need to be on their toes if they want to be represented in the Obama administration.