Obama pushes again to boost U.S. exports

Data show trade gap narrowed in Jan., but exports slipped as well

March 12, 2010|By Don Lee and David Pierson | Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON — - President Barack Obama launched a new effort Thursday to rebuild the nation's long-term economic strength by sharply boosting exports, and he got a lift from government data showing that the gap between what Americans sell abroad and what they import narrowed unexpectedly in January.

But the new trade report also showed that while imports declined, U.S. exports lost momentum as well, slipping for the first time since last spring.

The mixed signals show just how great the challenge will be to meet the president's goal of doubling exports in five years, which was last accomplished in the 1970s when global competition was less intense.

Obama stressed the urgency of the issue as he announced the creation of an Export Promotion Cabinet that would assign senior officials to undertake new responsibilities for enhancing and facilitating overseas sales.

"We have to rebuild our economy on a new, stronger, more balanced foundation for the future," Obama said in prepared remarks for the Export-Import Bank's annual conference here. "Ninety-five percent of the world's customers and the world's fastest-growing markets are outside our borders. We need to compete for those customers because other nations are."

Although he offered few details on the timing of specific actions, the president pledged to forge favorable trade agreements - including the long-stalled pacts with South Korea and Colombia - and to crack down on unfair trading practices.

He said that his administration also was working to overhaul the way the government restricts exports of certain U.S. products for security reasons. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would be outlining the proposed changes within the next couple of weeks, Obama said.

Obama's push to expand exports comes amid rising trade tensions as countries recovering from the global recession renew their efforts to protect their share of global markets and grow jobs through exports.

Trade relations with Mexico and Brazil have been strained over disputes involving trucking and American cotton subsidies. And the nation's large and long-running deficit with China is re-emerging as a political lightning rod.

Obama repeated his call for Beijing to move "to a more market-oriented exchange rate [that] would make an essential contribution to that global rebalancing effort."

The Chinese yuan is widely seen as significantly undervalued, giving exporters an extra pricing advantage in selling their goods overseas. The yuan has been pegged to the dollar since the outbreak of the financial crisis in mid-2008 - and many manufacturers and others in China argue that it would be destabilizing to let the currency appreciate.

Obama first stated his goal of doubling exports in five years in his State of the Union address in January.

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