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Posted at 11:35 AM ET, 03/ 3/2008

Obama parses his words

By Michael Dobbs


Campaigning in Ohio.

"I do not have to clarify it. The Canadian embassy already clarified it by saying that the story was not true. Our office has said that the story was not true. I think it is important for viewers to understand that it was not true...It did not happen."

--Barack Obama, Ohio TV station WKYC, February 29, 2008.

For the last four days, the Obama campaign, and the candidate himself, has been furiously denying a story first aired by Canadian television on Wednesday, February 27. The story has gone through several different versions. In its original form, CTV said that a "top staffer" from the Obama campaign had telephoned the Canadian ambassador to warn him that the candidate would soon be speaking out against NAFTA, the 1993 free trade agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The staffer allegedly told the ambassador that "the criticisms would only be campaign rhetoric and should not be taken at face value."

The Canadian embassy in Washington flatly denied the story, and Obama repeated the embassy's denials. It now turns out that, while there were errors in the original CTV story, a senior Obama campaign staffer did talk about NAFTA with a senior Canadian diplomat.

The Facts

Courtesy of Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press, we now have a contemporaneous account of what took place at the Feb. 8 meeting between a senior Obama campaign official, Austan Goolsbee, and the Canadian consul-general in Chicago, Georges Rioux. The AP obtained a 1300-word memo describing the meeting by a Canadian consulate official, Joseph DeMora.

In an interview with the AP, Goolsbee contested a portion of the DeMora memo that quotes him as saying that campaign rhetoric "that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy." He acknowledged telling the Canadians that Obama's position on NAFTA "is less about fundamentally changing the agreement and more in favor of strengthening/clarifying language on labor mobility and environment and trying to establish these as more 'core' principles of the agreement."

The DeMora memo is more nuanced and subtle than the initial CTV report. Both the Canadian embassy and the Obama campaign seized on the inaccuracies in the CTV report to try to knock down the entire story. This is a classic news management technique known as "parsing": focus on a minor detail that you can safely say is untrue, aggressively deny it, and create the impression that the entire story is inaccurate.

In this particular case, the detail about the Obama staffer telephoning the Canadian ambassador in Washington was inaccurate. There was no contact between the Canadian embassy and the Obama campaign on NAFTA. But the denials from both the Obama campaign and the Canadian embassy omitted an important part of the story. An Obama campaign staffer had discussed NAFTA with a senior Canadian diplomat. While a consulate-general is a different entity from an embassy, they are both staffed by Canadian diplomats.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton insisted today that the campaign had not misled reporters. He said that Goolsbee, who serves as Obama's senior economic adviser, had gone to the Canadian consulate in Chicago for an "informal" meeting, rather than as an authorized emissary of the campaign. He said that there was "nothing inconsistent" between what Goolsbee told the Canadians privately and Obama's promises on the campaign trail to renegotiate the NAFTA agreement.

UPDATE 5 P.M.

Here is the latest Canadian embassy statement on the matter:

The Canadian Embassy and our Consulates General regularly contact those involved in all of the Presidential campaigns and, periodically, report on these contacts to interested officials. In the recent report produced by the Consulate General in Chicago, there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect
.

The Pinocchio Test

The bottom line is that it has taken four days to drag something approaching the full story out of the Canadian embassy and the Obama campaign. As I suggested before, both Obama and Clinton have exaggerated their opposition to NAFTA in order to win votes in economically depressed Ohio. This is a case where the technical parsing of the truth by the Obama campaign falls well short of the whole truth.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | March 3, 2008; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Candidate Watch, Economy, Other Foreign Policy  
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Next: 'NAFTA-gate', Part II

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