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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

AFL-CIO Democratic Forum

"The president of Canada" and other factual bobbles.


Seven Democratic presidential candidates appeared Aug. 7 in a nationally televised forum at Chicago’s Soldier Field, sponsored by the AFL-CIO. Once again, we found some claims that were wrong and others that were questionable.

  • Sen. Joseph Biden said none of the others "has a better labor record than me." Actually, they all have better AFL-CIO "lifetime" ratings than Biden.
  • Sen. Barack Obama attempted to revise his own earlier remarks about invading Pakistan, claiming: "I did not say that we would immediately go in unilaterally. What I said was that we have to work with [Pakistan’s President Pervez] Musharraf." But the record shows Obama’s original remarks were much tougher than that.
  • Obama also said he would call "the president of Canada" about trade matters. Actually, that nation doesn’t have a president.
  • Sen. John Edwards said the North American Free Trade Agreement "has cost us a million jobs." That million-job estimate is disputed.


The event was moderated by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and televised live on that national cable channel. The candidates who appeared were Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Hillary Clinton of New York, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois; former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina; Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio; and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

Best Labor Record?

Sen. Biden claimed to have the best labor record of all the candidates present that evening:

Biden: Look at our records. There’s no one on this stage, mainly because of my longevity, that has a better labor record than me.

Actually, the opposite is true. All the candidates on the stage had a better "lifetime" labor record than Biden, as measured by the AFL-CIO’s ratings of Senate and House votes. The AFL-CIO’s latest listings show Biden voting its way 85 percent of the time over his entire Senate career – the lowest lifetime rating of all the candidates on the stage that night.

Source: AFL-CIO "Voting Record By Member of Congress"

It is true that Biden has served in Congress longer than any of the others on the stage, with a voting record that stretches back to 1973. That’s two years longer than Connecticut’s Chris Dodd, who has a 91 percent lifetime AFL-CIO rating

Despite this, Biden spokeswoman Annie Tomasini defended the senator’s claim to having an unequaled labor record. "Sen. Biden enjoys comparable ratings to his opponents during comparable periods of time," she said. And in any case, the AFL-CIO’s "ratings do not equal a track record of getting legislative and practical results for labor," she added.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

It’s true that Biden’s recent AFL-CIO ratings are more pro-labor than in the past. In 2005 Biden’s record was 93 percent, which is better than Clinton’s 86 percent, but still not equal to Obama’s perfect 100 percent rating for that year. In 2006 Biden tied Clinton and Obama, with all of them voting with the AFL-CIO 93 percent of the time.

Biden’s ratings in earlier years are weighed down by votes of which the AFL-CIO disapproved. In 1997 Biden joined a majority of Senate Democrats and voted to end a filibuster on a bill that would have allowed the president authority to negotiate trade deals on a "fast track." The AFL-CIO launched what it called “one of the biggest…grassroots campaigns ever” against that legislation. Biden received only a 57 percent rating that year. In 1998, he joined 14 Democrats in voting for an amendment that would, among other things, extend the stay of nonimmigrant agricultural workers in the U.S. That year Biden received an 88 percent approval rating.

(Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who didn’t appear at the event, claims to have a 100 percent lifetime voting record with the AFL-CIO, but we were not immediately able to confirm this directly with the labor federation.)

Obama’s Historical Revision

Sen. Obama rewrote history when he defended his controversial remarks about invading Pakistan if necessary to eliminate al Qaeda.

Obama: I did not say that we would immediately go in unilaterally. What I said was that we have to work with [Pakistan’s President Pervez] Musharraf.

Obama is referring to an Aug. 1 policy address, which left a much tougher impression. Then, he said in general that “I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America.” As for Pakistan specifically, he said that if elected he would go in unilaterally to “take out” al Qaeda if the U.S. has “actionable intelligence” and Musharraf refuses to act:

Obama (Aug. 1): I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In those remarks Obama clearly did say he would go in, and do it unilaterally, under the conditions stated. Whether or not that would occur “immediately” is a matter of interpretation, but the nature of “actionable intelligence” is such that it can become quickly outdated and must be acted upon very quickly. For example, in the capture of Saddam Hussein U.S. forces responded within “a couple of hours” of receiving “actionable intelligence” of his whereabouts, according to a briefing by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq at the time.

And by saying in general that he “will not hesitate” to use military force against terrorists, Obama left the impression that he wouldn’t wait long for Musharraf to act first, if he consulted him at all. It’s worth noting that Pakistan won’t even admit that terrorists have safe havens to attack. "There is no al Qaeda or Taliban safe haven in Pakistan," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said at a weekly briefing earlier this month. That directly disputes the recent finding of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that Obama cited in his speech, when he said "al Qaeda has a sanctuary in Pakistan” and is training new recruits there.

As for saying he would "work with" Musharraf, in his Aug. 1 speech Obama did talk of diplomatic efforts aimed at Pakistan. He said he would make current U.S. aid “conditional,” cutting it off unless the country shows progress in evicting foreign fighters. That sounds to us more like a threat than a promise of cooperation. Obama also said he would offer additional aid to “help Pakistan invest” in the border regions where al Qaeda and Taliban forces are said to operate. But he did not specify whether this additional aid would come before or after U.S. military action there.

The "President of Canada"?

Obama also stumbled by referring to a nonexistent world leader:

Obama: I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president of Canada to try to amend NAFTA

Canada, of course, has no president. It operates under a parliamentary system, and the head of government is the prime minister. Since February of last year that office has been held by Stephen Harper, leader of Canada’s Conservative party.

Edwards’ Dubious Million-Job Figure

John Edwards made this claim about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA):

Edwards: It’s cost us a million jobs.

That’s a disputed estimate. Other economic studies have produced far lower numbers. The million-job figure comes from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington with ties to the labor movement. EPI economist Robert Scott has estimated that the growth of exports since 1994 has supported an additional 1 million jobs in the U.S., while imports have displaced domestic production that would have supported 2 million jobs, leaving a net loss of 1 million. Scott’s estimate has been criticized by Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Jeffrey J. Schott of the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics, which has ties to Wall Street and the corporate world. They state that Scott’s estimate assumes that NAFTA is to blame for 100 percent of the growth in the trade deficit between the U.S. and both Canada and Mexico and that it ignores other factors. They also say that by Scott’s own estimate, half the jobs were lost to Canada, not Mexico, the country that draws the loudest complaints from NAFTA opponents in the U.S.

For the record, whatever the effects of NAFTA, the U.S. has gained nearly 26 million jobs since the agreement took effect on Jan. 1, 1994, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Missing Candidate

Former Sen. Gravel was the only Democratic presidential candidate who didn’t appear at the forum. The AFL-CIO didn’t invite him because he failed to return its questionnaire on time, which was distributed to all Democratic and Republican candidates. According to CNN.com, Gravel said, “It’s our mistake, but they are using our mistake to deny me an appearance before the AFL-CIO group and I had a 100 percent voting record for twelve years as senator and four years in the state legislature.”

– by Brooks Jackson, Emi Kolawole and Justin Bank, with Carolyn Auwaerter

Update, Aug 14: We have revised our criticism of Obama’s comments regarding Pakistan. Our original article stated that Obama’s Aug. 1 speech made no direct mention of working with Musharraf, which is correct. The speech named him only to say that if he won’t act, Obama will. However, we should have noted in our original article, as we do now, that Obama did discuss diplomatic efforts toward Pakistan. We maintain our conclusion that Obama’s debate remarks are an attempt to rewrite his earlier speech, which gave a much tougher impression.


"Remarks of Senator Obama: The War We Need to Win," Washington, DC, 1 Aug 2007.

U.S. Department of Defense,Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), "Ambassador Bremer Briefing from Baghdad," news transcript, 14 Dec 2003.

"Pakistan: No Al-Qaida Safe Havens," The Associated Press, 6 Aug 2007

U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "National Intelligence Estimate: The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland," 17 July 2007

Scott, Robert E.,"NAFTA’s Legacy: Rising trade deficits lead to significant job displacement and declining job quality for the United States,"(Chapter 2 of "Revisiting NAFTA Still not working for North America’s workers,") Economic Policy Institute, Washington DC 28 Sept 2006. 

Hufbauer, Gary Clyde and Schott, Jeffrey J., "NAFTA Revisited: Achievements and Challenges," Institute for International Economics, Washington DC October 2005: 84.

Mooney, Alexander, “AFL-CIO set to begin presidential endorsement process,” CNN.com, 17 July 2007.

Setser, Brad, "Estimating the Currency Composition of China’s Reserves," RGE Monitor, May 2007.