The List: Obama’s 10 Worst Ideas

Both John McCain and Barack Obama have many smart policy proposals, but not all of them are ready for prime time. This week, FP looks at 10 Obama ideas that should have never seen the light of day. Next week? McCain on the hot seat.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement

What he said: I will make sure that we renegotiate. I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced. Democratic primary debate in Cleveland, Feb. 26, 2008

Why its a bad idea: Trade agreements take years to negotiate, and Mexico and Canada would almost certainly seek new concessions of their own in a new round. Obama is right to argue that more economic development in Mexico will lower illegal immigration; hes wrong to think that bashing NAFTA is the right way to address the Rust Belts economic woes. Happily, since the Ohio primary, Obama has backed off his harshest criticisms of the agreement.


Opposing the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement

What he said: And Ill also oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement if President Bush insists on sending it to Congress because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements. Speech to Philadelphia AFL-CIO, April 2, 2008

Why its a bad idea: Although Obama cited antilabor violence, the murder rate for union members in Colombia last year was 4 per 100,000, well below the rate for the general population. The deal carries little to no cost for the United States; economists actually predict modest increases in U.S. exports. The upshot for an important ally in the war on drugs, however, is high, and consolidating Colombias commitment to open trade with the United States is a worthy goal.

John Moore/Getty Images

Talking Openly About Bombing Pakistan

What he said: If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf wont act, we will. Speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington, D.C., Aug. 1, 2007

Why its a bad idea: Engaging in military strikes in Pakistan happens to be established policy. But, as none other than Joe Biden pointed out last August, Its not something you talk about. The last thing you want to do is telegraph to the folks in Pakistan that we are about to violate their sovereignty.


Sitting Down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

What he said: Asked if hed be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, Obama replied: I would. Democratic primary debate, Charleston, S.C., July 23, 2007

Why its a bad idea: Engaging rogue states can be a savvy move, and even the Bush administration has negotiated with Pyongyang and sent envoys to meetings with Iran. But sitting down with heads of state without precondition? Thats another thing entirely, especially when it comes to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Carnegie Endowment expert Karim Sadjadpour told the Wall Street Journal, Only two things can rehabilitate Ahmadinejad politically: bombing Iran or major efforts to engage. No wonder Obamas foreign-policy team has walked back its candidates off-the-cuff remarks.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Pushing the Patriot Employer Act

What he said: When I am president Ill pass the Patriot Employer Act that Ive been fighting for ever since I ran for the Senatewe will end the tax breaks for companies who ship our jobs overseas, and we will give those breaks to companies who create good jobs with decent wages right here in America. Speech in Janesville, Wis., Feb. 13, 2008

Why its a bad idea: British economists Willem Buiter and Anne Sibert slam the bill as, reactionary, populist, xenophobic and just plain silly. Thats a bit much. A little populist pandering is hardly a threat to the global economic orderthe bill offers employers a small tax credit if they meet six conditions, including the probably unworkable provision that they keep their headquarters in the United States. Its never smart economic policy to reward companies for placing limitations on their own profitable activities, but as The Economist put it, Obama deserves a slap on the wrist for this one, not a full-throated indictment.

Promoting Coal-to-Liquid Fuels

What he said: The people I meet in town hall meetings back home would rather fill their cars with fuel made from coal reserves in Southern Illinois than with fuel made from crude reserves in Saudi Arabia. We already have the technology to do this in a way thats both clean and efficient. What weve been lacking is the political will. Statement introducing the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2006, June 7, 2006

Why its a bad idea: Obamas energy policy has much to commend it. But borrowing an idea from World War II Germany and apartheid South Africa? Bad move. Coal-to-liquid fuels produce nearly twice the greenhouse gases of ordinary petroleum, experts say, and its foolish to subsidize an industry that easily could go under if oil prices fall. Under withering fire from environmentalists, the Obama camp clarified his position in June 2007 as, [U]nless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20% less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels. Its since been dropped from campaign materials.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Eliminating Income Taxes for Seniors Making Under $50,000

What he said: Ill make retirement more secure for Americas seniors by eliminating income taxes for any retiree making less than $50,000 per year. Speech on Nov. 7, 2007, in Bettendorf, Iowa

Why its a bad idea: Most seniors already pay no income taxes. Thats because they already get preferential treatment in the tax code. Plus, why are seniors more deserving of tax relief than struggling young families? The Tax Policy Centerrun by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institutecriticized the idea in a recent report, saying that because government spending on seniors is already set to balloon due to retiring baby boomers, it seems inappropriate to target special income tax breaks to this group.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Boosting Ethanol Subsidies

What he said: [Ethanol] ultimately helps our national security, because right now were sending billions of dollars to some of the most hostile nations on earth. Statement at the opening of a VeraSun Energy ethanol processing plant in Charles City, Iowa, August 2007

Why its a bad idea: As economist Paul Krugman has written, corn-based ethanol is bad for the economy, bad for consumers, bad for the planetwhats not to love? World Bank economist Donald Mitchell blames biofuels, including ethanol, for a 75 percent increase in global food prices since 2002 that has led to economic distress and rioting in such countries as Haiti, Egypt, and Somalia. Theres also little evidence that they do much to prevent global warming. A recent study published in Science demonstrated that the farmland needed to grow corn for ethanol results in deforestation on a massive scale, negating any benefit the reduction in carbon emissions might have. So why does the senator support such a wasteful and damaging subsidy, even voting for the recent farm bills billions in pork for ethanol producers? [B]ecause Illinois is a major corn producer, he said in April. At least hes honest.

David McNew/Getty Images

Taxing Oil Companies Extra

What he said: Ill make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and well use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills. Speech in Raleigh, N.C., June 9, 2008

Why its a bad idea: Hes attacking the symptom, not the disease. Its certainly hard to defend oil companies making record profits while consumers are struggling to fill their tanks, but Big Oil has very little control over day-to-day gas prices, which are set by global supply and demand and, of course, OPEC. By discouraging oil companies from making big profits, such a tax could potentially discourage them from making investments in new refineries and finding new oil sources, resulting in fewer jobs and even higher prices at the pump. Jimmy Carter tried this in 1980, and it only increased U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Singling out one particular industry for punishment because it is politically unpopular doesnt make much economic sense, either.

Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

Opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve

What he said: We should sell 70 million barrels of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve for less-expensive crude, which in the past has lowered gas prices within two weeks. Speech in Lansing, Mich., Aug. 4, 2008

Why its a bad idea: Obama was right in July when he said that the strategic oil reserve has to be reserved for a genuine emergency. Selling oil from the 700 million barrel reserve would increase domestic supply and could drive down prices in the short term, but encouraging consumers to use more oil isnt going to fix anything. And depleting the reserve would leave the United States vulnerable to a supply disruption caused by a natural disaster or further unrest in the Middle East. Obama swapped common sense for this dangerous boondoggle in August after McCain started to hammer him on offshore drilling. So much for tough truths.

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