March 3, 2008 -- Sen. Barack Obama acknowledged Monday that senior economic adviser Austan Goolsbee had spoken to a Canadian government official about the Democratic presidential frontrunner's position on NAFTA.
However Obama disputed a Canadian government memo that suggested Goolsbee told the Canadian government his anti-NAFTA rhetoric "should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."
"Nobody reached out to the Canadians to try to reassure them," Obama said today in Texas.
"Unbeknownst to the rest of us, they reached out to Mr. Goolsbee who provided them with a tangible conversation and repeated what we've said on the campaign trail. Which is that we believe in trade with Canada. We believe in trade with Mexico," he said, but, "we think the terms of NAFTA have to be altered so that the labor standards and the environmental standards are enforceable."
The Obama campaign's acknowledgement of the meeting came after the Associated Press initially obtained a Canadian government memo, written by Joseph DeMora of the Canadian consulate in Chicago to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., about a meeting between Goolsbee and Georges Rioux, the Canadian consul general in Chicago.
"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," read the Canadian government memo first obtained by the AP and later obtained by Canada's Canwest News Service.
"[Goolsbee] 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 … he mentioned that going forward the Obama camp was going to be careful to send the appropriate message without coming off as too protectionist," the Canadian government memo read.
Obama Camp Acknowledges Meeting, Disputes Account
The Obama campaign acknowledged the meeting but continued to deny that there was any inconsistency between Goolsbee's private comments and Obama's public position.
"A couple of different issues came up including trade and tax shelters and things like that," Obama spokesman Bill Burton told ABC News. "As we've said and as the Canadian Embassy has agreed, nothing about what was said or discussed was in contravention of Obama's public and consistent position."
Initial stories by CTV suggested a senior Obama campaign official telephoned Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the United States, to reassure him that campaign rhetoric against NAFTA should not be taken seriously.
Later reports clarified the communication was a conversation between Austan Goolsbee and the Canadian consul general, Georges Rioux.
When word of Goolsbee's discussion with Canadian officials was first reported last week, the Obama campaign and the Canadian Embassy began denying the initial CTV report that the Obama campaign had reached out to the Canadian government.
They are also denying the Canadian official's characterization of the meeting in the memo as well as the initial erroneous report that the Obama campaign had reached out to the Canadian government, without directly addressing whether a discussion had taken place.
According to Burton, Goolsbee told Canadian officials that Obama was not a protectionist while explaining that he still "wanted to make labor and environmental standards a core part of the [NAFTA] treaty."
Canadian Embassy Releases Statement
The Obama campaign was bolstered Monday afternoon by a statement released by the Canadian Embassy.
"There was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect," read a statement by the Canadian Embassy.
While the embassy's statement helped shore up Obama's claim that he is sincere in his promise to renegotiate NAFTA, it indirectly called into question the Obama campaign's claim that Goolsbee was contacted in his capacity as a University of Chicago professor rather than in the context of his role as an Obama adviser.
"The Canadian Embassy and our Consulates General regularly contact those involved in all of the presidential campaigns," read the statement from the Canadian Embassy.
"This was not a formal meeting, this was an informal — it was actually a tour — and Austan was approached, not as a member of our campaign, but as a university professor and this was not a formal discussion about NAFTA," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said. "The suggestion that somehow this was some kind of diplomatic discussion with the Canadian government is just absolutely false."
Plouffe reiterated Obama's support for renegotiating the free trade deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico — which is blamed in the crucial voting state of Ohio for job losses.
"Trade deals like NAFTA have been very harmful," Plouffe said, "He believes in trade, and believes that good trade treaties can be helpful to the American worker and the American economy, but NAFTA is deeply flawed and needs to be fixed."
Clinton Criticizes Obama on Trade
Senator Hillary Clinton zeroed in on the AP report about the Canadian government memo that suggested that the Obama campaign had indirectly given members of the Canadian government some assurances that any talk about reforming NAFTA on the campaign trail should be viewed as nothing more than election-year politics.
"If you come to Ohio and you both give speeches that are very critical of NAFTA and you send out misleading and false information about my position regarding NAFTA and then we find out that your chief economic advisor has gone to a foreign government and basically done the old wink wink, don't pay any attention this is just political rhetoric. I think that raises serious questions," Clinton said while campaigning in Ohio today.
While he wouldn't confirm or deny a meeting with Canadian officials, Goolsbee told ABC News last Thursday that the Canadian consulate in Chicago pursued a relationship with him.
"They contacted me at one point to say 'hello' because their office is around the corner but it is not correct that I contacted them at all," Goolsbee told ABC News Thursday.
Obama's allies in organized labor came to his defense, dismissing the significance of Goolsbee's comments and attempting to turn the tables on Clinton by blaming her husband's administration not only for NAFTA's enactment but also for the subsequent loss of the Democratic Congress in 1994.
"We think this is a non-issue," Anna Burger, the president of the Change to Win coalition, told ABC News. "We think this is a smoke screen."
"It was the Clinton administration that pushed through NAFTA," she added. "We think it will take a Barack Obama administration to get stronger labor and environmental standards in NAFTA."
If Clinton does not emerge as the delegate winner in both Ohio and Texas on Tuesday, Burger plans to push for Clinton to get out of the race.
"We really hope that she realizes at the end of [Tuesday's voting] that it is time to unite the party," Burger said.