WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sought Thursday to put some detail behind his lofty drive to double U.S. exports over the next five years, calling the effort imperative to putting people back to work. But doubts remain about how many net jobs his trade agenda will create — and how he will get it done.
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In a speech to the Export-Import Bank conference, Obama outlined steps to flesh out his trade initiative. Among them: creating a mini-Cabinet of officials to focus on exports, seeking more financing to support trade efforts, beefing up enforcement of existing trade deals and pushing for the completion of stalled ones.
"We shouldn't assume that our leadership is guaranteed," Obama said. "When other markets are growing, and other nations are competing, we've got to get even better. We need to secure our companies a level playing field. We need to guarantee American workers a fair shake. In other words, we need to up our game."
Obama's trade pitch ties directly to the top concerns of Americans — the bleeding of jobs from the U.S. He promised in his State of the Union address that doubling trade over the next five years will support 2 million American jobs, a pledge he repeated Thursday. But that's a complicated matter.
Experts say potential jobs from more exports can be negated by job losses resulting from increased reliance on products from abroad. What's more, it is Obama's own Democratic Party, backed by its union supporters, that has led opposition to stalled trade-expansion pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
Obama sought to reframe the debate about trade. He said the average American doesn't see it as a means toward jobs or cheaper goods, but rather as a source of blame for shuttered plants and deteriorating communities.
"You can't blame them for feeling that way," he said. "Other countries haven't always played by the same set of rules. America hasn't always enforced our trade rights, or made sure that the benefits of trade are broadly shared. And we haven't always done enough to help our workers adapt to a changing world."
Still, he added: "We've got to compete in the global marketplace. Because it's never been as important an opportunity for America."
Under Obama's multitiered trade plan, a new mini-Cabinet of leaders from relevant Cabinet agencies, such as the departments of Commerce, State, and Agriculture, will keep export promotion as a priority. Obama also re-established the President's Export Council, a presidential advisory committee on international trade, and named two prominent business leaders to lead it. They are Jim McNerney, president and CEO of The Boeing Co., and Xerox Co. CEO Ursula Burns.
More broadly, Obama is promising to increase financing and advocacy for American businesses to "locate, set up shop and win" in new markets. His plan promises to get tougher in ensuring that U.S. companies have fair access to those markets, and to streamline export procedures without diminishing security.
Business groups and pro-trade Republicans are waiting to see if Obama translates his words into actions, but achieving a doubling of exports, assuming some consistency in the global economy and currency exchange rates, is certainly possible. Exports of goods and services nearly doubled in the 1990s, and nearly doubled again more recently, going from about $1 trillion in 2003 to more than $1.8 trillion in 2008, according to the Census Bureau Foreign Trade Division.
Resistance to free trade deals runs deep among many Democrats, who contend they have contributed to a loss of jobs in this country while not doing enough to protect worker rights and the environment in the partner country. Specifically, there's opposition to Colombia because of violence against labor leaders there, Panama because of its status as a tax haven and South Korea because of its restrictions on U.S. beef and auto imports.
Obama must negotiate through all of that, while also showing leadership in the long-stalled, so-called "Doha round" of global trade talks.
"Our success is my by no means guaranteed," he said. "But if we summon a sense of national purpose equal to the seriousness of these times; if we combine our creativity, our innovation, and our eternal optimism; if we come together in common cause as we have so many times before — then we will succeed."
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