WASHINGTON President Barack Obama asked Congress on Friday for power to consolidate agencies that promote U.S. exports, a move he cast as crucial to streamlining a sprawling bureaucracy struggling to meet the demands of a 21st century economy.
In proposing to close the Commerce Department and merge six trade and business agencies, Obama could help inoculate himself against Republican charges that he is a big-government liberal who has presided over one of the largest expansions of U.S. government in history.
Obama has launched a number of initiatives since late last year as part of a White House strategy to cast him as an activist president running for re-election in November against a "do-nothing" Congress as well as the eventual Republican presidential nominee.
The power Obama has requested would let him design changes that Congress could vote for or against, without revisions. The export plan was described by White House officials as a first step, with further consolidation likely to follow if Obama gets the authority he wants.
Ronald Reagan, an idol of conservative Republicans, was the last president who had authority to reorganize the government in the way Obama is seeking.
Analysts were skeptical that Republicans in Congress would approve Obama's request for expanded powers in an election year, although the initial Republican reaction appeared broadly positive.
"We hope the president isn't simply proposing new packaging for the same burdensome approach. However, eliminating duplicative programs and making the federal government more simple, streamlined, and business-friendly is always an idea worth exploring," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner.
Obama, in remarks at the White House, said the overhaul would make it easier for U.S. businesses to get help to export their goods, a key part of his economic agenda.
"With this authority, we'd help businesses grow, save businesses time and save taxpayer dollars," he said, outlining his request for powers to reorganize the federal government that Congress will need to consider within three months.
Obama wants to fold together the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and five other export bodies now spread across Washington into a new, yet-to-be-named department, giving businesses a single point of contact and trying to ensure that federal spending goes further to boost sales abroad.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - now part of Commerce - would be absorbed into the Department of the Interior under the plan, which also elevates the Small Business Administration to a cabinet-level post to underscore the White House's focus on smaller companies as an engine of job growth and recovery.
BUBBLES AND SALMON
A spokeswoman for Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the Republican presidential nomination race who has said he will make it a top priority to reduce the scale of government, cast Obama's move as an election year stunt.
"It's ironic that President Obama, who has grown government beyond belief for the past three years, is calling for consolidation of government. It is unfortunate that he is only doing so now to curry political favor in an election year," said spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Seeking to illustrate how complex government bureaucracy had become, Obama unveiled a slide with a bubble diagram that showed a dizzying array of websites, toll-free numbers and customer service centers that were available to small business owners seeking advice on loans and how to export.
"It's a mess," Obama said, after noting his favorite example of the bureaucratic maze.
"As it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater," he said. "If you're wondering what the genesis of this was, apparently, it had something to do with President (Richard) Nixon being unhappy with his Interior Secretary for criticizing him about the Vietnam War. And so he decided not to put NOAA in what would have been a more sensible place."
With U.S. unemployment still high and the economy growing slowly, Obama is trying to boost U.S. trade ties with developing markets such as Asia as a way to spur output. He has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years - from $1.57 trillion in 2009 to $3.14 trillion by 2015.
Trade experts said having one agency in charge of exports should help. "For the business community, engagement with overlapping agencies streamlined into a coherent process would be an advantage," said Nick Consonery of the Eurasia Group.
A White House official said the goal of streamlining the trade agencies was to save $3 billion over 10 years. It may also lead to the loss of 1,000 to 2,000 jobs through attrition, the official said.
(Additional reporting by Doug Palmer, Stella Dawson, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland, Glenn Somerville and Matt Spetalnick, Editing by Ross Colvin and Vicki Allen)