Barack Obama

Trade too important to shirk: Obama nominee

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States cannot afford to turn its back on trade as it tries to dig its way out of a deep recession, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to be U.S. trade representative said on Sunday.

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (L) and U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis (R) arrive at a news conference where U.S. President-elect Barack Obama announced them as his appointees in Chicago, December 19, 2008. REUTERS/John Gress

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk told the U.S. Conference of Mayors that he hoped to be confirmed by the Senate within the next two or three weeks, and joked that he’d been warned by his 19-year-old daughter he was taking an unpopular job.

“‘Dad, this is cool, except for everybody hates your office and everybody hates the WTO (World Trade Organization). Why would you do this?’” Kirk said, recounting her words in mostly light-hearted remarks to the mayor’s group.

“And in short, I told her because it’s too important. Our economy is too important. The challenges that face our communities are so big that we can’t afford to take anything out of our economic toolbox, including trade,” Kirk said.

Kirk offered no details about how Obama, who takes office on Tuesday, intended to carry out promises to fix the North American Free Trade Agreement or get tough on China trade and currency practices often blamed for U.S. manufacturing job losses.

Those priorities, plus Obama’s criticism of Bush administration trade deals with Colombia and South Korea, have raised concerns overseas that the new president could lead the United States in a more protectionist direction.

Kirk said he saw the importance of opening foreign markets when he was mayor of Dallas from 1995 to 2001.

“But I also know there are mayors in this room that represent communities that feel very differently about that, and part of our challenge as we go forward is to make sure we have a trade policy that basically makes sense to the American public,” Kirk said.

There has been no Senate action yet on Kirk’s nomination, partly because of a delay in getting his paperwork to the Finance Committee and partly because that panel plays a big role in crafting new economic stimulus legislation that has taken priority over many other concerns.

“As far as I know, all my stuff is in. To some degree, it’s just when they finish stimulus,” Kirk told Reuters, adding the Finance panel also has to work through hearings on Obama’s choices to head the Treasury Department and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Eric Beech