Obama taps former governor Locke as commerce chief

WASHINGTON Wed Feb 25, 2009 2:14pm EST

President Barack Obama nominates Washington Governor Gary Locke to become commerce secretary in Washington February 25, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Barack Obama nominates Washington Governor Gary Locke to become commerce secretary in Washington February 25, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated former Washington state Governor Gary Locke to be U.S. commerce secretary, turning to a West Coast politician with a history of working with China after his two previous nominees backed out.

"Gary will be a trusted voice in my cabinet, a tireless advocate for our economic competitiveness, and an influential ambassador for American industry who will help us do everything we can -- especially now -- to promote it around the world," Obama said.

Locke, who was the first Chinese American governor in U.S. history, is Obama's third nominee for commerce secretary after both New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Judd Gregg accepted the nomination and later withdrew.

"It's not lost on anyone that we have tried this a couple of times. But I'm a big believer at keeping at something until you get it right," Obama said.

During Locke's two terms from 1997 through 2004 he led eight trade missions to China and opened a Washington state trade office in Guangzhou. He also worked to boost trade with Mexico, Europe and other countries in Asia.

As commerce secretary, Locke would lead a huge bureaucracy

whose functions range from enforcing U.S. trade laws and boosting exports to overseeing the 2010 census and monitoring global climate change.

"Our nation's economic success is tied directly to America continuing to lead in technology and innovation and in exporting those products, services and ideas to markets around the globe," Locke said.

Washington, a state that depends heavily on exports, is home to software giant Microsoft and aircraft manufacturer Boeing's main production facilities, as well as international coffee purveyor Starbucks.

The state's wheat and apple farmers also look to overseas markets for a big part of their income.

Locke is credited with persuading Boeing to build its newest jetliner, the 787, in Washington state.

That puts him in the middle of a World Trade Organization dispute between the United States and the European Union over government support for civilian aircraft manufacturers. A pair of tit-for-tat cases began in 2004, when the United States challenged European aid for Boeing's rival Airbus.

"AMERICAN DREAM"

Although Washington state's exports to China have boomed, the overall U.S. trade deficit with China hit a record $266.3 billion last year and remains a sore spot in relations between the two countries.

Many U.S. politicians -- including Obama himself during last year's election campaign -- have said one big reason for the imbalance is that Beijing manipulates its currency to give its exporters an unfair price advantage.

Locke is a now partner in the Seattle office of law firm Davis Wright Termaine, where he has specialized in China, energy and government relations issues.

His grandfather immigrated from China a century ago and settled less than a mile from the Washington state governor's mansion where his grandson would later live.

"So Gary knows the American Dream. He's lived it. And that's why he shares my commitment to do whatever it takes to keep it alive in our time," Obama said.

Business groups hope Locke will be a strong advocate for completing the long-running Doha round of world trade talks and moving forward on free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that the Bush administration negotiated.

U.S. labor groups have backed Locke for the commerce job and say they hope he will work within the Obama administration to put pressure on China to improve worker rights.

Obama's first choice for Commerce chief, Richardson, withdrew in early January in the face of a legal probe into a California-based financial company that had done business with the New Mexico state government.

Gregg, a Republican, backed out two weeks ago saying he realized his policy differences with Obama were too big to overcome and it would be a "bigger mistake" to stay and serve in the administration.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, David Alexander and Ross Colvin; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)

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