IF the millions of Americans watching President Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday were listening carefully, they would have heard "more good American jobs" mentioned in the same breath as "North American Free Trade Agreement."
Given the recent flap over Mr. Bush's soured trade mission to Japan, it might have seemed an opportune time for the president to crow a little about the monster free-trade deal that enters a critical, final stage of negotiations next month. The deal would link the United States, Canada, and Mexico in a single free-trade bloc of 360 million consumers with a $6 trillion output.
But trade experts say the brief mention of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was no accident, reflecting a growing concern in the Bush camp that, given the nation's growing isolationist mood, this deal may not be the right grist for good election-year politicking.
"The Mexicans ... wanted a table-thumping speech," says Christopher Whalen, an international trade specialist based in Washington. "You can see from the speech he couldn't do it.... Nobody wants to talk about sending jobs to Mexico."
Mr. Whalen sees a two-tiered approach, with Bush and Republicans in Congress ignoring NAFTA prior to the election even as lower-level administration officials remain publicly buoyant that a deal may be voted on in Congress before the November election.
Indeed, Deputy US Trade Representative Julius Katz, who is overseeing the NAFTA talks, told a group of New England business executives Wednesday in Boston that the "election is not an obstacle" to the trade pact, and that the deal might be mostly ready by the end of February.
US Trade Representative Carla Hills will visit Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari this weekend to try to break a deadlock over Mexico's refusal to allow US investment in its domestic oil industry. Chief negotiators will meet Tuesday and Wednesday in Ottawa to discuss such key areas of disagreement.
"Yes, they're continuing with negotiations and continuing to talk it up, but in private dealings here, the Republicans don't want it brought up," says Whalen, who doubts there will be a vote before next year. "The Democrats would love it."
This, US unionists say, is because Bush's assertion that more jobs will flow is dead wrong. They cite Canada's loss of 400,000 manufacturing jobs since the 1989 US-Canada Free Trade Agreement as an example of what will happen on a grander scale in the US if NAFTA is approved.
"I think there is a relationship between what has occurred in Canada and what we expect to occur in the US after a NAFTA," says Mark Anderson, an economist with the AFL-CIO in Washington. He cites the loss already of 500,000 US jobs to the low-wage, duty-free maquiladora zone on the US-Mexico border.
Though free-trade fears in the US are growing, polls show Canadians' enthusiasm for it has fallen through the floor amid unemployment over 10 percent. Still, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney remains a White House ally, though a wary one.
"We want to be part of a [NAFTA] area," Barbara McDougall, Canada's secretary of state for external affairs told the Monitor recently. "But in this negotiation ... we will protect our interests."