Joe Biden Faces Backlash Over NAFTA Support Ahead of Michigan Primary

Former US Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally organized by UFCW Union members in Dorchester, Mass., on April 18, 2019. Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images
Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden is facing backlash over his decades-long support for the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as he campaigns across Michigan ahead of the state’s Democrat primary.

Biden, who often touts his support from organized labor on the campaign trail, was met by protesters on Monday at rally in Detroit. As the former vice president was speaking, a number of individuals unfurled two giant banners, one of which read ‘NAFTA killed our jobs.’ The individuals, some of whom identified as union members, began chanting “Biden killed jobs,” forcing the former vice president to pause and address the disruption.

“That’s alright, let them go,” Biden said, as supporters and security attempted to pressure the protesters to stand down. “Let them go, this is not a Trump rally. The ‘Bernie Bros’ are here, let them go.”

When the crowd subsided and the protesters were escorted out, Biden used the opportunity to take a shot at both President Donald Trump and his rival for the Democrat nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“I’m not worried about it, it’s just a reflection of what’s wrong with American politics today,” the former vice president said. “This is one of the things that Donald Trump has generated, this is not who we are … as a party … or as a people. We have a lot of crazy folks around.”


The altercation in Detroit comes as Biden’s long-standing support for free trade takes center stage as the primary contest heads into Michigan. Sanders, who is hoping that a win in the state can restart his flailing presidential campaign, is hammering hard on the issue. In tv ads and on the stump, the Vermont septuagenerian has lambasted Biden for his support of NAFTA and the other free trade agreements, claiming that if Democrats were to nominate someone with such a record, it would essentially mean surrendering the industrial Midwest to Republicans.

“Does anybody think that Joe can go to Michigan or Wisconsin or Indiana or Minnesota and say, ‘Vote for me. I voted for those terrible trade deals,” Sanders said during a recent rally.

The strategy is one that has worked in the past for the senator. During his 2016 bid for the Democrat presidential nomination, Sanders was able to score upset victories over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by emphasizing his opposition to free trade, specifically then-President Barack Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.

Sanders’ message was particularly potent in Michigan, where the burden of free trade has been most pronounced. Since NAFTA was first implemented in 1994, Michigan lost more than 168,000 manufacturing jobs to countries overseas, most notably Mexico. The impact was felt most heavily by white working-class voters, many of whom lack a college degree.

In 2016, such voters overwhelmingly backed Sanders in Michigan’s Democrat primary, handing the senator a narrow victory over Clinton. The results were surprising, not only because Sanders was coming off devastating losses in South Carolina and Super Tuesday, but also because most polls heading into the contest had shown the former secretary of state winning heavily. Sanders ‘victory in Michigan, along with further wins in Wisconsin and Minnesota, foreshadowed the difficulty Clinton would have in keeping such states in the Democrat column in November 2016.

Biden, for his part, seems to understand that history and the detriment posed by his support for free trade. Even before the 2020 Democratic field winnowed to a head-to-head matchup with Sanders, the former vice president had already begun distancing himself from his prior stance on the topic. During a Democrat presidential debate in July 2019, Biden admitted that he would not rejoin TPP if elected president. The move was surprising given that the former vice president had once touted the deal’s ability to forge a “new world order” where open markets would force even countries such as China to reform and prosper. Biden built from that reversal at a another debate in August, when he further promised to oppose a “new NAFTA” agreement after being badgered on the issue by rivals.

Monday’s protests in Detroit, though, indicate that Biden’s prior championing of free trade is unlikely to be forgotten, especially by supporters of Sanders. Complicating matters for the former vice president is that Trump, himself, appears poised to continue hammering away on the issue if Biden were to become the Democrat nominee.

“Joe Biden made a deal, NAFTA,” the president said last week during a campaign rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “He approved it, he was pushing it. It’s the worst trade deal ever made.


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