“Automation is relentless”

In last interview as president, Obama sounds clarion call on trade, technology

By: Eric Johnson
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Photo: Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock
   The day before former President Barack Obama left office, he sounded a clear note of warning about the role trade and automation will play in the United States’ future.
   Speaking to the Pod Save America podcast in his last official interview, Obama called automation a “relentless” force.
   “We all want free and fair trade and you can argue about negotiations with China or take a tougher stance with Mexico, or what have you, but the fact is, and the data just shows this, the jobs that are going away are primarily going away because of automation,” he said. “And that’s going to accelerate. Driverless Uber and equivalent displacement that will take place in office buildings around the country is going to be scary for folks.”
   Four days later, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that pulled the United States out of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and signaled that he wants to renegotiate the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.
   Enactment of the TPP, a trade agreement impacting duties on goods and services between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations, became a cornerstone initiative of Obama’s second term.
   In the Jan. 19 podcast, Obama said that the bigger challenge facing the United States is not trade relations, but rethinking what the future economy looks like.
   “We’re going to have start thinking about, where do jobs come from, and how much government involvement is there in the marketplace?” he said. “Do we have a job-sharing economy so that everybody has work? Because it turns out that work is not just about finances, but it’s about dignity and feeling like you’ve got a place in the world. And how do you pay for that?”
   Obama framed his comments in the context of the Democratic Party’s role in a government in which they now control neither the executive nor either legislative branch. He said part of the message is to better engage with disenfranchised citizens, but also to come together with a singular message on issues like trade and automation.
   “The Democratic party will have to be a little bolder in how we describe our economic options going forward,” he said. “There’s been an argument about trade in the Democratic Party and that’s been one of the few fault lines in what has otherwise been a pretty unified Democratic Party.”
   Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton opposed the TPP, while only 28 Democratic representatives voted in 2015 to give the Obama administration fast track authority to negotiate the TPP, compared to 190 Republicans. On Monday, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) lauded Trump’s decision to pull out of the TPP. There is clearly a divide about the role trade agreements should play.
   Meanwhile, as an example of the disruptive power of technology, Obama pointed to the retail industry.
   “We have to be more creative about anticipating what’s coming down the pike, because automation is relentless,” he said. “And it’s going to accelerate. You saw what happened to retail store sales this past Christmas. Amazon and online sales is killing traditional retail, and what’s true there is going to be true throughout our economy.”
   Finally, Obama took a lightly veiled dig at what he perceives as the potential for Trump and Congressional Republicans to appropriate his call to invest in U.S. infrastructure, implying that he had been stonewalled in his efforts to fund an overhaul of the system.
   “Trump says that he wants to build infrastructure,” Obama said. “I’ve been on my infrastructure advocacy since I came into office. That should be an area where our (Republican and Democratic) interests meet, but how you pay for it is really important. If (President) Trump and Republicans tell you, ‘right now deficits don’t matter, let’s go ahead and finance a big infrastructure boom,’ it’s important for Democrats to anticipate that two years later, they’ll come back and say, ‘you know what, we all voted for this infrastructure, now the deficits are terrible, deficits count again, and this is why we need to cut Medicaid.’
   “You look for ways to cooperate where you can, but you don’t play the sucker. Make sure that cooperation does not carry such a high price that it undermines some other key things that you care about.”