* Top candidate Froman could stay in White House job
* Obama looking at candidates for both USTR, Commerce posts
By Doug Palmer and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, Jan 22 U.S. Trade Representative Ron
Kirk said on Tuesday he was stepping down as the nation's top
trade official in late February, opening up a plum economic post
as President Barack Obama searches for more women and minorities
for his Cabinet.
White House international economic affairs adviser Mike
Froman had been considered the front-runner to succeed Kirk, but
sources familiar with his thinking said he was likely to stay in
his current job, which allows him to weigh in on issues ranging
from energy and climate change to trade and international
One source familiar with the situation identified Treasury
Under Secretary for International Affairs Lael Brainard,
Commerce Under Secretary for International Affairs Francisco
Sanchez and U.S. Export-Import Bank President Fred Hochberg as
candidates for the USTR job.
Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, Texas and early Obama
supporter, oversaw congressional approval of free-trade
agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. He also
completed negotiations on Russia's entry to the World Trade
"Ron was relentless in making the case to the American
public that a balanced, thoughtful trade policy can contribute
to a stronger economic future for America," Obama said in a
statement praising his friend and golfing companion.
Leading the small, dedicated team of professional
negotiators at the U.S. Trade Representative's office "has been
no less than my greatest professional privilege," Kirk said in a
statement that gave no detail of his future plans.
"In President Obama's first term, trade has been a major
part of this administration's efforts to support American jobs
right here at home. I am proud of USTR's contribution to
America's ongoing economic recovery," he said.
Other possible candidates to succeed Kirk include Deputy
U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis and the U.S.
ambassador to the World Trade Organization, Michael Punke.
TWO JOBS TO FILL
Obama, who is under pressure to name more women and
minorities to his second-term Cabinet, may also look outside the
administration to fill both the USTR job and that of Commerce
secretary, which has been filled on an "acting" basis since John
Bryson stepped down last year.
The source familiar with the matter said Hochberg, the Ex-Im
president, Jeffrey Zients, a deputy director of the White House
budget office, and Elizabeth Littlefield, president of the
Overseas Private Investment Corporation, were all under
consideration for the Commerce position.
Xerox chief executive Ursula Burns, who is vice
chair of Obama's export council, was also being considered, and
there was an ongoing search for business leaders outside the
administration for the role, the source said.
Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank is "acting" head of
the sprawling department, and some industry officials think she
may be chosen to fill the job permanently.
CHINA TRADE TENSIONS
Kirk's tenure was marked by increased confrontation with
China over trade issues, with the United States challenging
Chinese policies that discriminate against American exports in
areas ranging from wind power to autos.
Kirk overcame initial White House resistance to relaunching
talks on a regional free-trade agreement known as the
Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many experts consider the most
significant trade negotiation now under way.
"It's very hard to pursue an activist international agenda
when there's so much churning in the domestic economy. To his
credit, he has maintained an open U.S. trade policy at a time of
great stress," said Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the
Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Ed Gresser, trade policy director at GlobalWorks Foundation,
said Kirk helped restore support for trade in Congress after
bitter fights between Republicans and Democrats during President
George W. Bush's administration.
"There's a steadily strengthening consensus in Congress that
trade policy needs to be a part of the solution to our
(economic) crisis and we need to be passing more trade bills and
negotiating more agreements," Gresser said.
Kirk, a former Texas secretary of state, ran unsuccessfully
for the Senate in 2001 but has downplayed chances that he might
run for office again. He has joked with reporters about his
desire instead to earn more money to pay for his two daughters'
Kirk has worked with European Union Trade Commissioner Karel
De Gucht to lay the groundwork for possible negotiations on a
transatlantic free trade agreement between the United States and
the 27-nation European Union.
However, he was not able to crack the tough nut that is the
Doha round of world trade talks. Those negotiations began in
2001 and still are unfinished, with the hope of a comprehensive
market-opening agreement all but officially dead.