Los Angeles Times
April 22, 2008

Bush strongly defends NAFTA

Meeting with Mexico's Calderon and Canada's Harper in New Orleans, Bush says the trade agreement is 'creating wealth in our neighborhoods.'

By Johanna Neuman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

President Bush, meeting in New Orleans with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada, issued a stirring defense today of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been roundly criticized by Democratic candidates campaigning in job-strapped states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Calling the agreement "a visionary move by previous leaders that's benefited all three of our countries," Bush said that "now is not the time to renegotiate NAFTA or walk away."

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have called for changes in the agreement to strengthen environmental and worker protections. But with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at his side, Bush was adamant that NAFTA is "creating wealth in our neighborhoods."

Former President Bill Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress. Since then, the administration says, trade between the three countries has increased, to $930 billion last year. "I wish people could remember what the border between Texas and Mexico looked like before NAFTA," said Bush, a former governor of Texas. "It was poor, really poor. If you go down there today it's prosperous, on both sides." Do away with NAFTA, he said, and it will mean "more Mexicans out of work" and more strain on Border Patrol agents trying to deter illegal immigration.

Bush also criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for yanking from the House floor a free trade agreement with Colombia. Denigrating the "voices of false populism," Bush said that if the agreement is not ratified after being negotiated in good faith with the Colombians, "She's going to have to explain...why anti-Americanism can flourish, when America turns its back on a stronger leader like President [Alvaro] Uribe."

"I'm concerned about protectionism in America," he said. "It's not in our interest to become a protectionist nation."

Bush also urged Congress to find a way to pass the free trade agreement with Colombia.

"If we don't agree to a free trade agreement that we ... negotiated in good faith, it ... will destabilize parts of the world," he said. "It would be a big mistake for the Congress to turn its back on Colombia."

The two other leaders agreed, with Harper noting a destabilized Colombia posed "long-term security consequences for all of our governments in North America." Calderon said the three talked a lot about NAFTA and "of course we agreed that now is not the time to even think about amending it." Saying that he did not want to interfere in the U.S. political process, the Mexican president said he would wait to "speak to the person who is ultimately the president" and hopes that "whoever is the next president of the United States, he or she will continue with this regional effort."

On the ailing U.S. economy, Bush cited growth figures from the fourth quarter of last year to argue that "we're not in a recession." But he acknowledged that "we're in a slowdown" and said that Congress needs to avoid new taxes. Without mentioning Obama or Clinton by name, Bush said, "We got people out there campaigning, saying they're just going to tax the rich." He argued that plans to tax the rich always "end up taxing the middle class."

During a press conference, Bush also said he was worried about record-high crude oil and gasoline prices.

"I am obviously concerned for our consumers," Bush said. "Fortunately Canada and Mexico are our biggest providers, for which we are grateful."

In addition to imports of oil, Bush said the United States needs to explore for more oil and gas and blamed Congress for slowing efforts to drill for oil "in environmentally safe ways" in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "Our energy policy wasn't effective over the years and now we're paying the price," he said.