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Obama Administration Disappoints Faith Community on Environment, Trade Deals

October 13, 2011, 5:33 pm | Posted by John Gehring

tarsands.jpgThe Obama administration is facing some necessary scrutiny from religious groups who care about global justice. New “free trade” deals pushed by the administration and passed by Congress last night were broadly opposed by faith-based organizations, including the Presbyterian Office for Public Witness, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and the Interfaith Working Group on Trade and Investment.

Meanwhile, diverse religious leaders are still protesting the $7 billion Keystone Pipeline Project designed to run from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. President Obama is set to decide by the end of the year whether the project gets a green light, but the State Department has, according to Catholic News Service, “cleared the way for construction in a report that found the project poses no serious threat to the environment and will enhance national security.” And earlier this week, five health and environmental groups sued the Obama administration over its rejection of a stricter standard for ozone pollution that would have improved inadequate Bush-era regulations.

Trade and environmental justice have long been central, and interrelated, issues, for many in the faith community. NAFTA-style trade agreements are a boon to multinational corporations but have a devastating impact on local jobs, wages, food and product safety and the environment. The trade deals just passed with Colombia, South Korea and Panama expand this failed NAFTA model.

Faith-based activists and others found the Colombia trade deal particularly troubling given the country’s shameful record in targeting union leaders. Last year, 51 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia – more than the number killed during the same time period in the rest of the world combined. As a candidate for the White House, Obama himself opposed the Colombia free trade deal and promised to change course from the Bush-era model of corporate globalization.

At Fire Dog Lake, Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, notes that while the mainstream media framed the story this morning as a rare bipartisan victory for the White House, discontent from the president’s own party was significant:

This represents a complete flip-flop for President Obama, who won crucial swing states by pledging to overhaul our flawed trade policies. So it is no surprise that a sizeable majority of Democrats in Congress voted against these agreements, against Obama and for American jobs.

Today a larger share of House Democrats voted against a Democratic president on trade than ever before. It took Bill Clinton nearly eight years of NAFTA job losses, sell outs and scandals to have nearly two-thirds of the House Democrats vote against him on trade.

Given the strong Democratic opposition, ultimately it was the Tea Party GOP freshmen who passed these job-killing deals despite their campaign commitments at home to stand up for Main Street businesses, against more job offshoring and for Buy American requirements.

For faith-based advocates who generally commend President Obama’s politics of the common good, his promotion of Bush-era trade deals and weak environmental standards is a major disappointment.

The president of late is sounding a more populist note on economic issues and more forcefully taking it to Tea Party Republicans who make obstructionism into an art form. But this president can do better, and in the past has encouraged social justice advocates to keep pushing him. I’m guessing there will be no shortage of progressives taking him up on that offer.

Photo credit: ElvertBarnes, Flickr

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