Campaigning Monday in the pivotal battleground of Ohio, President Barack Obama hit China over allegedly underhanded competition that hurts American workers, and knocked Mitt Romney as being for unfair trade practices before he was against them.
"We don't need folks who during election time suddenly are worrying about trade practices, but before the election are taking advantage of unfair trading practices," Obama told a crowd of some 4,500 cheering supporters in Cincinnati.
The Republican presidential nominee has recently redoubled his attacks on the president over China as both men court blue-collar workers who blame Beijing's rise for the decline of American manufacturing. It's a sentiment with overwhelming support in Congress, where many accuse the rising economic power of keeping its currency artificially low against the dollar—a move that helps keep its exports cheaper relative to American competition.
The former Massachusetts governor has promised that, if elected, he will formally designate China a currency manipulator, a step that could trigger retaliatory sanctions—and, many experts warn, precipitate a trade war.
Obama, who has sometimes struggled to reach white working-class voters, accused Romney of benefiting personally from seeing American manufacturing jobs flow to China. The president charged that, as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital, his rival invested in firms that moved jobs to Asia.
"He made money investing in companies that uprooted from here and went to China," Obama said. "Now, Ohio, you can't stand up to China when all you've done is sent them our jobs."
The Romney campaign vigorously disputed that allegation, with spokesman Ryan Williams accusing the president of "recycling false and debunked attacks."
"He can't tell the people of Ohio about his record of fewer jobs, more debt, and lower incomes," Williams said in a statement. "And even members of his own party have loudly condemned his inaction toward China."
(The Republican National Committee also blasted out a series of quotes from Democrats, including Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, which had criticized the Obama administration for not designating China a currency manipulator. Obama aides say the yuan is artificially cheap, but that the issue is best addressed either at the World Trade Organization or through bilateral negotiations—even though such talks have yielded little progress. Legislation meant to escalate the pressure on Beijing has stalled in the Republican-held House of Representatives in the face of opposition from potent sectors of big business.)
Obama's trip came as the U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced new steps to challenge China's allegedly improper subsidies to its auto and auto-parts sectors.
The Obama administration is also escalating another trade enforcement action, begun in July, against what it says are unfair anti-dumping and countervailing duties on some $3.3 billion in U.S. automobile exports to China.
"You can talk a good game, but I like to walk the walk, not just talk the talk," Obama said.
Romney's tough rhetoric on China reflects how a challenger can use foreign policy issues to his or her advantage: Candidate Obama did the same thing on China in 2008, pushing then-President George W. Bush to boycott the Beijing Olympics. In 2000, candidate Bush hit the Clinton administration's record on China and described the rising Asian power as a strategic competitor. And in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton accused then-President George H.W. Bush of accommodating the "butchers of Beijing."
Each time, the candidate turned president muted his more strident criticisms and worked to bring Beijing into international institutions and get its cooperation on a range of thorny issues, like nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. Advisers to Romney insist that he would keep his pledge.