Obama Chief of Staff Emanuel Key in Passage of NAFTA

Obama’s newly appointed Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was key in the passage of NAFTA–a piece of legislation that is almost universally hated by the Democrats’ grassroots base. Does Emanuel’s appointment say anything about where Obama is going to stand?


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.”

Emaneul has reflected positively on the administration’s passage of NAFTA:

“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.

Former President Clinton Speaks in Grand Rapids, Addresses a Variety of Issues

Former President Bill Clinton spoke in Grand Rapids Monday, addressing a variety of issues including inequality, global warming, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Clinton’s speech called for greater cooperation between the people of the world and argued for the importance of finding “common ground.”

photo of bill clinton in grand rapids

Last night, former President Bill Clinton spoke to an audience of 2,100 at the annual dinner of the Economics Club of Grand Rapids. He began his speech with a joke about Bono, who spoke last year at the Economic Club, saying thank you “for the introduction, the welcome, and for giving me the only time in my life when I drew a bigger crowd than Bono.” The joke set the stage for much of the media coverage of his speech, which focused on the most trivial comments he made, downplaying the seriousness of many issues that Clinton spoke on during his talk.

Much of Clinton’s speech emphasized the need for finding “common ground.” He argued that this is important regardless of one’s politic views and affiliations and began by speaking of his work with President George H.W. Bush raising money for the Asian Tsnuami and Hurricane Katrina relief and being honored for it by the National Underground Railroad Museum. He said this was particularly important because many Americans are searching for “a common ground” out of the “clamor and din of modern life.” He went on to say that whatever ones politics are, there are five questions that we must all be able to ask and answer–what is the fundamental nature of the 21st century world, is it a good or bad thing, how would I like to change it, what steps would necessary to make those changes, and who is supposed to take the steps.

According to Clinton, most people see the 21st century as a globalized world, although Clinton himself prefers the term “interdependence” rather than “globalization.” Countries are tied together through economics, travel, information technology, and people are increasingly learning in common. As an example of this, he cited the mapping of the human genome and the international space station, arguing that it proves the world is interdependent.

He followed up by stating that while that answered the first question, the second question is answered by saying that the world is both good and bad. He highlighted the fact that the state of the world is good for the people at the dinner–they are able to afford fancy clothes and he could fly here on an airplane–but there are three serious problems with the modern world. He said that the world is unequal, unstable, and unsustainable. Clinton told the audience that many people are not part of the globalized economy and that half the population are living on less than $2 per day. He argued that it not trade–an oblique reference to the fact that Clinton and other Democrats have been criticized for their support of NAFTA and other neoliberal trade agreements–that is causing this, asserting that instead trade lifts people out of poverty. Aside from income inequality, Clinton also referenced a lack of education, disease, and lack of water as further indicators of inequality in the world.

Clinton argued that the world could be characterized as “unstable” because of terror, weapons of mass destruction, and the potential for epidemics being spread because of our interdependence. He mentioned the potential threat of avian influenza and compared it to the flu epidemic of 1918 that killed some 25 to 50 million people. He then focused his attention on weapons of mass destruction, highlighting the potential for terrorists to acquire such weapons. He drew the current United States showdown with Iran into the discussion, stating “it’s one of the reasons that I hope that we’ll find a way before disaster develops to keep Iran from continuing past a certain point with its nuclear program.” He further stated that he believes once Iran realizes that if they use a nuclear weapon “it would be the end of their country” that they will not do it, although he said Iran would give the material to terrorists. Finally, he said that terrorism makes the world unstable. He did say that he believes the 21st century will be less violent than the 20th century, with less people “being slaughtered” over political violence in the 20th century–but that it is perhaps scary for Americans because many now feel that they could be the victims.

Clinton declared that the world is “unsustainable” because of climate change, which he argued is now largely considered to be a fact. He said that it will change agriculture and living patterns, ushering in major changes in peoples lives, pointing out as an example the situation in Darfur, which was exacerbated by a drought. He also cited resource depletion as further proof that the world is not sustainable, arguing that trees, water, topsoil, and species destruction are threatened. Similarly, oil is being depleted quicker than people thought, with some estimates suggesting that oil will be depleted in 35 years. Population growth will be an additional problem, with the majority of the growth being in areas that cannot support additional people.

In light of these problems, Clinton argued that “we cannot be naive” about the realities of the world and that a strong security system is necessary. For Clinton, this system includes not just the military, but interagency cooperation and even integrated health systems. However, security will not be enough, because you “cannot kill, jail, or occupy everyone who is or might be against you.” Instead, allies are needed and relationships with other nations can help greatly. Clinton said that while he supports the war in Afghanistan (where he called for more troops) but not Iraq, the costs are astronomical compared to the total cost of meeting the UN Millennium development goals, which he placed at $120 billion per year. He said that if the United States pursued the development goals, there would be fewer people “making bombs and blowing themselves up.”

Clinton also called for “home improvement” or the continual improvement of the United States. He placed this in the context of Michigan’s economy, which has been particularly hard hit. He said West Michigan is doing better than some areas because of its diversified economy, but that overall the United States is in a difficult place. Despite productivity growth, a record high stock market, increased corporate profits, and other indicators, wages for the median wage earners have remained stagnant. Clinton claimed that it is not possible to have a strong middle class in a global economy without a source of new jobs every 5 to 8 years nor can you maintain a stable social fabric unless you can compete with the strongest competitors. He mentioned that the United States has failed to work with the world community to address climate change and healthcare, with the United States being far behind other countries. He cited the successes of Great Britain and Norway as possible models for success, while also advocating for personal actions such as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs. Clinton argued that fighting climate change and improving energy efficiency by doing things such as retrofitting buildings to be more efficient could be the biggest mobilization of American since World War II and provide a significant boost to the economy.

Clinton focused a portion of his comments on the recent conflict in Palestine, blaming Hamas for the current situation. He said that Hamas took away security from the Palestinian people rather than focusing on the hungry, arguing that this is what happens when people only look at their differences. He said that the Palestinians could develop their beaches to improve their economy if only they could set aside their differences. Clinton argued that outside of Palestine most of the Palestinians he knows are professors and that the only poor ones are in Palestine, where politicians have “grinded them down” talking about their differences. He further said that if the Israelis and Palestinians could put their differences aside, they could become the economic powerhouse in the Middle East. Clinton’s simplistic comments assigned no fault to Israel, nor did it look at the historical aspects of the conflict.

Clinton argued that everyone needs to participate for changes to take place in society. He cited the growth in charity as an example of success in the country. He said that philanthropy–for example through his foundation–can make significant changes in addressing many of the problems that he talked about. He argued that people should find hope in the world and that there are things that can be done to improve it, especially if people realize that they can seek “common ground” rather than divide themselves. Clinton asserted that if people looked beyond what was different and focused on what is the same–truly seeing people as people–there could be fundamental change in the world.

Clinton’s Environmental Policy

Like so much of his legacy, former President Bill Clinton’s environmental policy has received little examination despite the fact that it consisted largely of a series of defeats for the environmental and progressive movements.

“Across the board, setbacks for the greens came at a dizzying pace during the Clinton administration… Tax breaks were doled out to oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The Department of Agriculture okayed a plan to increase logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest temperate rainforest. The Interior Department, under orders from the White House, put the brakes on a proposal to outlaw the most grotesque form of strip mining, the aptly-named mountaintop-removal method. With Gore doing much of the lobbying, the administration pushed through Congress a bill that repealed the ban on the import of tuna caught with nets that also killed dolphins. The collapse was rapid enough to distress so centrist an environmental leader as the National Wildlife Federation’s Jay Hair, who likened the experience of dealing with the Clinton-Gore administration to ‘date rape.'”

– Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair in Al Gore: A User’s Manual

photo of logging

In advance of former president Bill Clinton’s appearance in Grand Rapids on Monday, we have looked at various aspects of the Clinton legacy–NAFTA, his genocidal Iraq policy, welfare reform, and media policy–which are largely forgotten and/or ignored by progressive movements and the country as a whole. All too often, we hear praise of the Clinton administration despite the fact that Bill Clinton’s centrist policies were often handouts to his corporate backers. No doubt, part of this failure lies with the media, which has failed to investigate Clinton’s legacy. There have been no stories exploring Clinton’s policies in the local media since it was announced that he was coming to Grand Rapids, with stories either simply saying that he is coming, or more recently, discussing how much he has been paid for similar speaking engagements.

The environment is another issue on which President Clinton’s policies were far from progressive. Despite the support of much of the mainstream environmental movement during his administration who hoped for a shift following the twelve years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Clinton administration repeatedly disappointed, frustrated, and betrayed supporters in the environmental movement. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair argue that Clinton administration, particularly Vice President Al Gore, played a key role in neutralizing the environmental movement by bringing them “in to the fold.” Gore met once a month with “the Gang of Ten” executives of the ten largest environmental groups and more than thirty administration posts were filled by executives and staffers at the major environmental organizations. However, despite being granted considerably more access than they had during the Reagan and Bush administrations, environmentalists were rarely heard and were instead expected to play dutifully along with Clinton’s policies.

Almost immediately, the administration broke its first promise on the environment. On July 19, 1992, Vice President Al Gore delivered a campaign speech on the environment criticizing the Bush administration’s plans to approve a permit for the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. The incinerator, located 350 feet from the nearest house and only a few hundred yards from an elementary school, was seeking to burn 70,000 tons of hazardous waste per year. In that speech, Gore promised that “a Clinton-Gore Administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems.” After being elected, Gore again promised residents that the Clinton administration would deal with the issue, saying “the administration will not issue the plant a test burn permit until all questions concerning compliance with the plant have been answered.” However, this never happened and the EPA granted a test burn permit, and when the tests failed, the permit was still awarded. Gore has tried to claim that the administration’s hands were tied by the Bush Administration who promised the permit. According to Jeffery St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn, one of Gore’s environmental aides met with Bush’s EPA director and told the Bush administration to start the process of granting the permit. Similarly, a 1994 report from the General Accounting Office said that there were numerous grounds on which the plant could have been shut down. Also worth noting is the fact that the construction of the incinerator was partially underwritten by Arkansas investment banker Jackson Stephens, a major financial supporter of the Clinton-Gore campaign. Stephens company was represented by Webb Hubbell, who was a part of Clinton’s Justice Department.

This was far from an isolated incident and another campaign promise on the environment was quickly broken by the Clinton-Gore administration. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, federal judge William Dwyer sided with environmentalists in ruling that Forest Service logging in ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest was driving the spotted owl to extinction. In 1991, Dwyer issued an injunction halting new timber sales in spotted owl habitats. When Clinton and Gore came to the Pacific Northwest on the eve of the 1992 election, they promised to “end the standoff” over the fate of the forests. Following the injunction, timber sales had fallen from 20 million board feet per year in 1982 to 2 million board feet in 1993. However, the Clinton administration turned its attention to removing the injunction. To this end, it organized an April 1993 Forest Summit bringing together environmentalists and corporate executives to “solve” the problem. Nothing concrete came out of the Summit, but the Clinton administration continued to claim that it sympathized with the environmental concerns. Clinton had a team of scientists draft eight options for the forests, but none of them suited his needs. A ninth option–subsequently referred to as “Option 9”–reduced the amount of logging allowed during the Reagan years, despite failing to set aside any permanently protected old-growth forest preserves and permitted clear-cutting to continue in both the spotted owl habitat and some of the most ancient forests in the region. An environmental analysis developed along with the plan said it placed “hundreds of species at increased risk of extinction,” according to Jeffrey St. Clair in his book Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green To Me. After heavy lobbying and threats from the Clinton administration, the large environmental groups signed onto the deal.

Other Clinton era policies threatened forests and permitted logging in old-growth areas. The Clinton administration approved the biggest timber sale in recent years by the Forest Service, the Prince of Whales timber sale on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The plan allowed the clear-cutting of thousands of old-growth trees and the construction of 100 miles of roads in a previously roadless region. The “salvage logging rider” attached to a 1995 spending bill signed by Clinton opened the way for the logging of millions of acres of National Forest land while exempting the sales from environmental laws and judicial review for two years. Brent Blackwelder of Friends of the Earth said “the salvage rider was arguably the worst single piece of public lands legislation ever signed into law.”

According to journalist Jeffrey St. Clair, the Clinton administration used Vice President Al Gore and his “green credentials”–earned through his statements on global warming and longstanding friendships with prominent environmentalists–to “sell” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the environmental movement. NAFTA was one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation from Clinton’s administration and was ultimately one of the most harmful to working people and the environment in the United States and Mexico. Rather than address inadequate environmental protections in NAFTA, Clinton had Gore lobby top-ranking environmentalists to support the trade agreement. Gore relied on longtime friend Jay Hair of the National Wildlife Federation who used his role as leader of the “Gang of Ten”–the ten largest environmental groups–to push for NAFTA. Rather than focus on the relatively meaningless environmental protections in NAFTA, Hair told the other organizations that an endorsement of NAFTA would mean support for environmental reforms in the United States. The more conservative and policy-oriented groups endorsed the agreement, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Conservation Foundation, and the National Audubon Society. The Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth were aggressively attacked by Hair for opposing the agreement, although as seen in previous paragraphs, the Clinton administration did little for the environment despite the support of the environmental movement.

Bill Clinton and Media Policy

In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Critics have described the legislation as one of the most anti-democratic pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century.

media policy graphic

With greater awareness about the role that corporate media plays in the public’s understanding of issues like war, the economy and other public policy matters, it is important to investigate the role that former President Bill Clinton played in shaping the media landscape. Clinton, who will be speaking in West Michigan at the Economics Club of Grand Rapids annual dinner on June 18, signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a major change in media regulations.

According to Jeff Chester in his book Digital Destiny deregulation of the media was part of the plan early on with Clinton, who stated “we will support removal of judicial and legislative restrictions on all types of telecommunications companies: cable, telephone, utilities, television and satellite. Market forces replace regulations and judicial models that are no longer appropriate.” This was not just rhetoric for Clinton, but a mandate that was embodied with the passing of the 1996 Tele-Communications Act. Media Scholar Bob McChesney calls the 1996 Tele-Com Act one of the most anti-democratic pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century. Here is a summary of what the 1996 Tele-Com Act changed:

  • Lifted the limit on how many radio stations one company could own. The cap had been set at 40 stations. It made possible the creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations, and led to a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, homogenization of play lists, and less local news.
  • Lifted from 12 the number of local TV stations any one corporation could own, and expanded the limit on audience reach. One company had been allowed to own stations that reached up to a quarter of U.S. TV households. The Act raised that national cap to 35 percent. These changes spurred huge media mergers and greatly increased media concentration. Together, just five companies – Viacom, the parent of CBS, Disney, owner of ABC, News Corp, NBC and AOL, owner of Time Warner, now control 75 percent of all prime-time viewing.
  • The Act deregulated cable rates. Between 1996 and 2003, those rates have skyrocketed, increasing by nearly 50 percent.
  • The Act permitted the FCC to ease cable-broadcast cross-ownership rules. As cable systems increased the number of channels, the broadcast networks aggressively expanded their ownership of cable networks with the largest audiences. Ninety percent of the top 50 cable stations are owned by the same parent companies that own the broadcast networks, challenging the notion that cable is any real source of competition.
  • The Act gave broadcasters, for free, valuable digital TV licenses that could have brought in up to $70 billion to the federal treasury if they had been auctioned off. Broadcasters, who claimed they deserved these free licenses because they serve the public, have largely ignored their public interest obligations, failing to provide substantive local news and public affairs reporting and coverage of congressional, local and state elections.
  • The Act reduced broadcasters’ accountability to the public by extending the term of a broadcast license from five to eight years, and made it more difficult for citizens to challenge those license renewals.

The consequences from the 1996 Tele-Com Act have been far reaching and continue to impact the American public, as is documented well in a Common Cause report entitled “The Fallout from the 1996 Telecommunication Act.” One of the consequences of the 1996 Tele-Com Act has been the reduction in female and minority ownership of media, which has also resulted in a decrease in women’s and minority voices in news coverage.

One more important outcome of the Clinton administration’s passage of the 1996 Tele-Com Act has been the ongoing relationship between the telecom industry and the Democrats. According to the Center for Public Integrity, from 1998-2004 the Democrats received over $82 million from the telecom industry and the Republicans just over $63 million. In the same way that Clinton’s support of NAFTA, the war in Iraq, and welfare reform have been a detriment to working people, media deregulation under Clinton has only benefited big business.

Bill Clinton and Welfare Reform

Like much of his legacy, former President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” effort has gone largely unexamined, despite its dismantling of a 61-year old social safety net. Clinton’s welfare reform intitiative greatly reduced welfare rolls by moving people into low-wage jobs and placing time limits on assistance.

bill clinton welfare reform graphic

When President Bill Clinton speaks in Grand Rapids next Monday at the Economics Club of Grand Rapids’ annual dinner, his policies will likely receive little critical examination in the corporate media. Like his signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or his Iraq policy, Clinton’s “welfare reform” initiative has received little critical review over the years. In 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act after years of campaigning and promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Clinton signed a Republican welfare reform bill in 1996 despite his criticisms that portions of it–specifically cuts in the food stamps program and denial of benefits to undocumented immigrants–were too harsh. Most importantly, the bill set work requirements for most welfare recipients and limited the length of time that they could receive assistance, making it a substantial change to the welfare system.

Clinton’s adoption of “welfare reform” as a major issue was a critical component of the Democrats’ shift to the right in the 1990s. While able to win two presidential elections by appealing to the center-right, Clinton’s “New Democrats” led what was essentially an attack on the working class with a “softer” face than that of the Republicans. Clinton’s welfare reform, the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and promotion of a neoliberal economic agenda all had their most direct impact on working class Americans. Similarly, Clinton’s charisma and his repeated promises to the left silenced many critics, while he advocated policies that preempted Republican positions on a variety of issues.

In the months and years leading up to the passage of the welfare reform bill in 1996 (“The Personal Responsibility Act”), Clinton placed considerable emphasis on personal “responsibility” and in particular, the idea that welfare mothers needed to learn “responsibility.” Clinton’s rhetoric invoked the memory of President Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” who were allegedly living large off of government assistance. From his 1991 campaign promise to end welfare to his repeated lecturing of the poor in 1996 while pushing for welfare reform, Clinton made several such statements:

In May 1991, Clinton said “opportunity for all is not enough… For if we give opportunity without insisting on responsibility, much of the money can be wasted and the country’s strength can still be sapped. So we favor responsibility for all. That’s the idea behind national service. It’s the idea behind welfare reform.”

In June of 1996, Clinton said “First and foremost, community programs must stress abstinence and personal responsibility. A program cannot be successful unless it gives our children the moral leadership they need to say no to the wrong choices and yes to the right ones.”

In the Summer of 1996, Clinton said “A long time ago… I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help.”

At the time, the bill was the subject of considerable protest from welfare rights organizations, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, “the left,” and Senator and self-proclaimed welfare policy expert Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Of course, as is so often the case, this opposition got little coverage in the media and instead reports of how much welfare reform would benefit the country carried the day.

This has continued up until the present day, with few media outlets critically examining welfare reform. In a review of press coverage on the tenth anniversary of welfare reform, Neil deMause wrote for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s (FAIR) that since the passage of welfare reform the media has largely ignored the connections between welfare reform and poverty. deMause points out that while poverty rates did decline from 1996 to 2000, they grew again after 2000 when the economic “boom” of the 1990s ended. Instead of looking at how welfare reform has impacted the lives of those no longer on the welfare rolls, deMause argues that the media has either trumpeted the fact that welfare rolls have shrunken, or when admitting the ambiguity of welfare reform’s legacy, have asserted that it was not as bad as what critics expected.

Clinton himself has advanced a similar assessment of welfare reform, focusing his comments on the tenth anniversary of welfare reform on how many people were moved off welfare in a widely circulated op-ed in the New York Times. Clinton failed to ask the more important question of how people faired once they were off welfare. In his lengthy autobiography, My Life, Clinton gave the topic only minimal coverage–one paragraph in its hundreds of pages.

So, if Clinton and the media have not investigated welfare reform, what were its long-term effects? Unfortunately, because it moved much of the administration to the states it is often difficult to find specific numbers and many of the effects–particularly in the past five years–have gone unstudied. In 2006 on the tenth anniversary of welfare reform, child poverty was on the rise in the United States, a noteworthy fact when one considers that 70% of those affected by welfare reform were children. Since welfare reform in 1996, 2.5 million families have left the program. Welfare reform also disproportionately affected women (90% of federal welfare recipients were women at the time of its passage), with studies in 2003 showing that about 1 million single mothers formerly receiving assistance were neither working or receiving cash benefits from welfare, disability, or unemployment insurance and were not living with a partner who had income from those sources and that 20% of mothers removed from welfare rolls have been unable to find work. Those that have found work–according to media reports–tend to be stuck in low-wage jobs paying around $8 per hour, an amount that is more than what they would have earned in welfare benefits but far short of a living wage. Instead, welfare reform was a part of a shrinking social safety net and following welfare reform, only 50% of those eligible for assistance received it compared with 80% in the 1980s.

Various studies have shown that the results of welfare reform have been “mixed” at best–the number of people receiving assistance is down while various measures of poverty are up–with it being difficult to place blame on a specific program. In 2004, a study by the Center on Budget and Priority Policies that reviewed other studies found that poverty rates for families leaving welfare are high and that families that lose assistance because of time limits are more likely to experience hardship than those leaving for other reasons. In 2006, the Center for Law and Social Policy declared that “by any real measure of family well-being, low-wage workers are no longer able to achieve economic security by ‘working hard and playing by the rules’.” The Center cited studies showing that child poverty increased 12% from 2000 to 2004, that welfare workers struggle to obtain employment due to lower education levels, domestic violence, learning disabilities, and other reasons, and that 40% of low-income single mothers spend half of their income on childcare. In Michigan, a 2001 study reported that only 25% of women who left welfare were employed at “good jobs,” generously defined as paying $7 an hour with benefits or $8 without.

However, studies and statistics often miss the human aspect of how low-wage jobs and removal of welfare benefits effect women. Because of the emphasis on “work first,” working is often prioritized over parenting meaning that many single women face increased difficulties in the already hard work of parenting. The statistics do not show how women balance employment with the second job of parenting, a reality that often means little sleep and constant stress.

Bill Clinton, NAFTA, and Michigan

In 1993, then President Bill Clinton aggressively promoted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) promising that it would create thousands of jobs. Among the more controversial aspects Clinton’s legacy, NAFTA has cost thousands of jobs in the United States, including over 60,000 in Michigan, while having devestating effects on workers in Mexico.

bill clinton promoting nafta photo

Later this month, former President Bill Clinton will visit Grand Rapids to speak at the Economics Club of Grand Rapids annual dinner. In response to his visit, Media Mouse is continuing a series of pieces examining the legacy of Clinton. Yesterday we covered Clinton’s Iraq policy and today we will examine Bill Clinton and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

In his signing statement, President Clinton was praised by Vice President NAFTA as an issue that was able to “transcend ideology” and gain bipartisan support. Clinton compared the signing of NAFTA to the fall of the Berlin wall, while promising that “NAFTA means jobs.

American jobs, and good-paying American jobs.” Clinton promised that “NAFTA will create 200,000 American jobs in the first two years of its effect” and “a million jobs in the first five years of its impact.” Of course, this did not happen.

For residents of Michigan, the impacts of the NAFTA have hit close to home. As corporations have moved jobs outside of the United States to maximize profits by paying lower wages and to escape regulations, the economy in Michigan has suffered. According to the Economic Policy Institute, all fifty states have experienced job loss due to NAFTA, although Michigan is among the hardest hit states. The Economic Policy Institute has determined that Michigan lost over 63,000 jobs due to NAFTA. In a 2004 video produced by Media Mouse titled “The Adventures of the NAFTA Bunny,” Media Mouse documented several thousand jobs lost in West Michigan at area companies ranging from Electrolux (2,700) to Johnson Controls (885).

While explaining that “jobs moving to Mexico” is a result of NAFTA is commonplace in Michigan and around the United States, less examined is the role of Bill Clinton in passing NAFTA. NAFTA was negotiated and signed under the Bush administration, but was ratified in Congress in 1993 following an aggressive push by Bill Clinton who made NAFTA a major legislative priority. Clinton aggressively promoted NAFTA as part of his agenda despite public opposition of 2-to-1 against the trade agreement. Clinton joined the rest of his administration and corporate lobbyists in a “full-court press” for votes on NAFTA, making it a “do or die” vote. In order to secure the votes for its passage, Clinton aggressively lobbied Republicans and offered money for pork projects in exchange for votes, while organizing a series of ineffective “side agreements” that were designed to counteract opposition from the labor and environmental movements.

The ratification of NAFTA and its subsequent results fit within a larger foreign policy goal of the Clinton administration of advancing United States interests, summarized by Clinton’s Treasury Secretary who stated that “I’m tired of a level playing field…We should tilt the playing field for U.S. businesses.” Moreover, NAFTA helped to advance the interests of the global ruling class, with NAFTA making a significant amount of money for the ruling elite in government and the private sector. NAFTA was pushed with the support of the media system, despite the fact that much of the public was opposed to the deal. Clinton would continue passing similar trade deals throughout his administration, with the Clinton/Republican alliance pushing through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and China’s being granted PNTR. However, while the effects of NAFTA on workers in Canada, Mexico, and the United States as well as who the likely benefactors would be received attention in the alternative press at the time, the full story on NAFTA has still been largely ignored by the corporate media.

The effects of NAFTA has been the subject of a plethora of books, studies, and articles, and cannot be exhaustively covered within this article. The effect on jobs in the United States, mentioned previously, has been significant. The United States government has certified that more than 525,000 jobs were specifically lost to NAFTA as companies took advantage of provisions in NAFTA making it easier and more profitable to relocate to Mexico. Corporations based in the United States have also used the threat of moving to Mexico as a way of weakening unions and union organizing drives. Many of the workers who have been displaced by NAFTA have found significantly lower paying jobs in the service industry, which offers pay of twenty-three to seventy-seven percent less and few or no benefits. According to Public Citizen, “NAFTA has aggravated the problem of deindustrialization and helped perpetuate the stagnation of real wages for millions of hard-working Americans and their families.”

In Mexico, over 1.5 million farmers have lost their farm-based livelihoods due to the flood of United States corn, while wages in the manufacturing sector fell from an average of $5 per day to $4 per day. Prices paid to corn farmers, once the backbone of Mexico’s agricultural sector, have fallen by 70%. As a result, half of the Mexican work force works on less than $8 per day. Furthermore, a third of the 800,000 jobs created in Mexico by NAFTA–many in the low-wage maquiladora sector–have left Mexico and relocated to Asia. Thousands of Mexicans have been displaced from their homes due to changes in the agricultural sector, and have relocated to the border region where they live in poor conditions and work low-wage jobs.

NAFTA also has effects on national sovereignty and democracy. Rights and protections within NAFTA gave preferential treatment to foreign investors. In many cases, this treatment exceeds what is available under domestic law, with NAFTA provisions allowing corporations located within any of the three countries to sue the other countries over regulations–including health, zoning, or environmental regulations–that impede a corporation’s ability to make profit. This has happened, with Canada reversing its ban on a gasoline additive called MMT, which destroys catalytic converters and is a suspected neurotoxin, after U.S. Ethyl Corporation filed a NAFTA Chapter 11 case for $201 million alleging the public health policy violated its NAFTA rights. In Mexico, the government was required to pay U.S.-based Metalclad Corporation $16 million in compensation after a Chapter 11 claim that the denial of a municipal construction permit for a toxic waste facility in an environmentally sensitive zone near the city of Guadalcazar violated its NAFTA rights. Moreover, these cases are filed in secret under NAFTA’s Chapter 11 rules, making oversight next to impossible.

Clinton’s Iraq Legacy Questioned as he comes to Grand Rapids

Former President Bill Clinton will speak in June in Grand Rapids. Among the topics he reportedly will cover is the Iraq War, which he has criticized in recent years. However, Clinton has been silent on his Iraq policy.

bill clinton photo

On June 18, former President Bill Clinton will speak in Grand Rapids at the Economics Club of Grand Rapids’ annual fundraising dinner. According to the Grand Rapids Press, President Clinton will discuss “the war in Iraq, the work being done through his foundation, and his work with former President George Bush raising money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.” In light of Clinton’s appearance in Grand Rapids, it seems fitting to examine the Clinton legacy, starting with the Iraq War. While individuals like President George W. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney have been protested by the antiwar movement when they come to West Michigan, little attention has been focused on so-called “moderates” or “liberal” proponents of United States imperialism (for example, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen) when they come to West Michigan.

Over the past two years, former President Bill Clinton has positioned himself as a liberal critic of the Iraq War. He has objected to the manner in which the war has been conducted, but has largely refrained from criticizing the entirety of the war or providing a more comprehensive analysis of US power in the Middle East. This is not surprising given that in 2004 while promoting his autobiography My Life, President Clinton defended President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq arguing that he has “repeatedly defended President Bush against the left on Iraq.” In a Time magazine interview in 2004, Clinton said that he “supported the Iraq thing” because of Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), although he would have preferred that the United States wait for the weapons inspection process to finish.

In 2005, President Clinton changed his position and argued that the United States made “a big mistake” when it invaded Iraq. Clinton criticized the post-war planning stating that the United States government “made several errors” in Iraq including a failure to anticipate “how easy it would be to get rid of Saddam and how hard it would be to unite the country.” Clinton argued that it was a mistake to “dismantle the whole authority structure of Iraq. … We never sent enough troops and didn’t have enough troops to control or seal the borders.” In the same speech, Clinton declared that “Saddam is gone. It’s a good thing, but I don’t agree with what was done,” while stating that the ratification of the Iraqi constitution and the holding of parliamentary elections were “good things” the United State has done in Iraq. In 2006, Clinton argued that resources used in Iraq have hurt the war in Afghanistan and described the situation in Iraq as a civil war.

When he speaks himself on the Iraq War or is interviewed and asked his thoughts on the war, Clinton is almost never challenged on his policy in Iraq, nor is there much discussion of Clinton’s Iraq policy. This is unfortunate, because much of the current policy towards Iraq had its origins in the administration of President Bill Clinton. During his eight years in the White House, President Clinton over saw an Iraq policy that killed over 350,000-500,000 children via sanctions, repeatedly bombed Iraq out of concern over WMD, and made regime change the official policy of the United States.

The most notable aspect of President Clinton’s Iraq policy was his maintenance of a sanctions regime that decimated Iraq’s economy and that was estimated to have killed 500,000 children. While the figures would later be disputed with lesser estimates of 350,000, their destructive impact is undeniable. Responding to concerns over the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would famously state “I think it is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.” Ordinary Iraqis reported significant hardship from the sanctions, while food and medicine were lacking and the economy crumbled. Scholars of United States foreign policy including Edward Said and Edward Herman described Clinton’s Iraq policy as a “war crime.” It must also be remembered that the sanctions came on top of the devastation of the first Gulf War.

Despite the horrific impact of the sanctions regime on a generation of Iraqis, Clinton has been fairly silent on the impacts of the sanctions. While former Secretary of State Madeline Albright eventually said that she regretted her statement about the deaths being “worth it,” Clinton has not shown similar remorse for his policy. In an interview in 2000 on Democracy Now, Clinton disputed the numbers over how many children died in Iraq under sanctions saying “that’s not true.” Clinton argued that Hussein “butchered the children of his own country” and that “if any child is without food or medicine or a roof over his or her head in Iraq, it’s because he is claiming the sanctions are doing it and sticking it to his own children.” Clinton accused Saddam Hussein of squandering the money and withholding it from children to create a death toll that would “build up pressure” to end the embargo so that he could rebuild his weapons programs. He further dismissed claims by two United Nations officials that quit their jobs because the sanctions were genocidal as being “wrong” to make such statements. Clinton’s comments reflected what became the United States official response to critics of the sanctions blaming Saddam Hussein rather than acknowledging the United States’ role.

The economic sanctions against Iraq during the Clinton administration were a product the same hysteria about WMDs that prompted Clinton to repeatedly bomb Iraq throughout the 1990s. In December of 1998, Clinton launched a three-day bombing campaign against Iraq. Clinton justified the bombing by claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and that the United States had to enforce the will of the United Nations after the UN pulled its inspectors out of Iraq due to a lack of cooperation from Iraqis. At the time, the United States failed to show that the weapons existed, though it was willing to launch attacks to destroy both the weapons and the infrastructure necessary to manufacture them despite Pentagon estimates that the attacks could kill as many as 10,000 civilians. According to international law scholar Phyllis Bennis, the bombings were a violation of international law. Under Clinton, the United States repeatedly bombed Iraq in the US-imposed “no-fly zones,” with the bombings reaching a high point in 1999.

In 1998, the Project for a New American Century— involving many of the architects of the Iraq War including Paul Wolfowtiz, Donald Rumsfeld, and William Kristol–wrote a letter to Bill Clinton urging him to make removal of Saddam Hussein a foreign policy goal of the Untied States. While the Clinton administration responded that it believed containment was the best way to deal with Hussein, later that year Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act later that year. The Iraq Liberation Act made regime change the official policy of the United States.