In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama maintains a studied ambivalence about NAFTA. He didn't emphasize populist broadsides against the deal until it became imperative for him to win down-scale white voters in states like Wisconsin and Ohio. On the merits, it's an odd time to demonize NAFTA. U.S. manufacturing went through a deep recession from 2000 to 2003, shedding 3 million jobs. It has recovered since, and 2006 was "a record year for output, revenues, profits, profit rates and return on investment," Daniel Ikenson of the Cato Institute writes.
As Frank Vargo of the National Association of Manufacturers points out, when manufacturing jobs drastically declined from 2000 to 2003, manufactured-goods imports essentially were stagnant. Trade affected the manufacturing recession not through an increase in imports, but a decline in exports. That, coupled with a decline in domestic consumption of manufactured goods coinciding with the U.S. recession, accounted for the large job losses.
Obama always says that politicians should tell voters what they need -- not what they want -- to hear. But no one in the Democratic Party will emphatically say that trade is a net benefit to the U.S., even if it brings painful -- and ultimately unavoidable -- dislocations. Hillary Clinton always was lukewarm about NAFTA, and even Bill is skittering away from his legacy. On trade, Barack Obama's opportunistic fear-mongering defines the new Democratic orthodoxy.