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In that respect, the USTR is at a bit of a crossroads during a year in which it is celebrating a half-century in business. Created in 1963 by President Kennedy, it was expanded in 1974 to foster international trade and business agreements and was elevated to a Cabinet-level position. The State Department previously handled such international economic agreements.

A representative for Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and U.S. trade representative under Mr. Bush, said the senator is concerned that the Obama administration isn’t doing enough to pursue international trade agreements. Although international trade agreements have potential to “open global markets for American-made products,” Mr. Portman is concerned “that American exporters are falling behind,” said spokeswoman Caitlin Dunn.

Mr. Portman wants Congress to renew Mr. Obama’s “fast-track” authority to cut trade deals, which Congress can only approve or reject without amendments. Presidential fast-track authority, which Mr. Obama and Mr. Froman also have called on Congress to restore, lapsed in 2007.

Trade policy in a ‘vacuum’?

Administration supporters shrug off the criticisms and the perception that the heavy domestic travel itinerary looks like union advocacy.

Good trade policy can’t be made in a vacuum, Mr. Kirk said. Federal negotiators must understand what economic interests are present and what business opportunities are needed in America.

“We fundamentally believe that in order to help grow our economy, the United States has to be engaged in the competition, this new global competition, for these new consumers around the world,” he said.

USTR tracks the ambassador’s travels on their website, with information on the purpose of each trip and transcripts of many speeches given during the visit.

The last year in which domestic and international travels were close to each other was in 2009: 16 international trips and 10 domestic. In 2010, travel within the U.S. jumped to 19 trips and appearances, compared with six international trips.

In 2011, the ambassador again made six visits overseas and 13 trips within the U.S. In 2012, the rates are again similar: 14 international trips and 10 domestic. This year, the trade representative has taken four trips, all of them overseas. Three of the trips were taken in conjunction with Mr. Obama’s tour through Africa last month.

But some international trips taken by the ambassador aren’t always for the express purpose of negotiating trade agreements. Like the trips to Africa this year, some travels are the ambassador accompanying the president to discuss economic policy overseas. Other trips are to attend events like a meeting of the World Trade Organization, where the ambassador is expected to represent U.S. interests.

Meanwhile, the domestic trips have been accused of overtones of a campaign event, with the trade representative often speaking to large groups of workers. The USTR website states that several of the ambassador’s travels included delivering speeches on “how the Obama administration’s trade policy increases U.S. exports and American jobs.”

Several of Mr. Kirk’s speeches employed campaignlike rhetoric.

“The president’s policies are based on the principle that America does best when we’re all in it together, when everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same set of rules,” Mr. Kirk said in a September 2012 speech in Florida, two months before the presidential election.

“President Obama made the right calls in a series of tough decisions to prevent total economic collapse and bring us back from the brink. And thanks to his leadership, we are headed in the right direction today,” he continued.

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