WASHINGTON President Barack Obama on Wednesday launched a drive to double U.S. exports over the next five years in a move that reaches out to business groups and Republicans who have criticized his inaction on trade.
"We need to export more of our goods. Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America," Obama said.
"So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America," Obama said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has locked horns with Obama on healthcare and a number of other issues during his first year in office, has been urging him for months to set a national goal to double exports.
To accomplish that goal, Obama announced a "national export initiative" to help farmers and small businesses sell more of their goods overseas, and also promised to reform export controls that high-tech manufacturers say are out of date.
A recent study for the National Association of Manufacturers estimated modernizing the controls could boost U.S. exports by $56 billion annually within the next 10 years without jeopardizing national security.
Obama said he also wanted closer trade ties with Panama, Colombia and South Korea. Those three countries have signed trade deals with the United States. But the pacts have been stalled for years because of Democratic party opposition.
His reference to the trade deals is an olive branch to Republicans, who have fought Obama on his big initiatives like healthcare reform and last year's economic stimulus law.
But Daniel Price, a lawyer at Sidley Austin and former White House adviser to George W. Bush, said many would be "puzzled" by Obama's failure to explicitly urge approval of the deals and instead only call for stronger trade ties.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk replied that Obama has given clear orders not to lose any chance to create jobs in the United States.
"President Obama has directed USTR to work to resolve outstanding issues in order to find ways forward on these agreements, and USTR is doing that work," the aide said.
Republicans have argued that if Obama is serious about boosting exports, he should push for approval of the three trade deals negotiated by the Bush administration.
That risks badly dividing Democrats, many of whom blame the North American Free Trade Agreement of the early 1990s and China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 for millions of lost U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Obama said the United States would lose jobs if it "sits on the sidelines" while other countries are busy negotiating trade agreements to open markets. At the same time, the United States must rigorously enforce its trade deals to make sure other countries play by rules, he said.
Obama promised to push for closer trade ties in Asia, an apparent reference to his administration's plan to negotiate a regional trade deal in the Asia Pacific.
He also said the United States would continue to push for a deal in the Doha round of world trade talks that opens up global markets.
The Doha round was launched in November 2001 with the goal of helping poor countries prosper through trade.
But negotiators missed their original goal of getting a deal by January 2005 and the talks remain bogged down.
A senior European Union trade official recently blamed the United States for the bleak state of the negotiations, saying other countries still do not know after more than eight years of talks what Washington needed to reach a deal.
U.S. trade officials say they have been clear that advanced developing countries like China, India and Brazil must offer bigger market openings in exchange for cuts in farm subsidies and in agricultural and manufacturing tariffs that the United States is being asked to make.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Eric Walsh)