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Trade ambassadors under President Bush also sometimes used rhetoric to support policies, but the speeches were usually directed at foreign leaders and economic experts, not U.S. workers.

“President Bush has put open trade at the center of his vision for a more prosperous and peaceful world,” Mr. Portman told a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Hong Kong in 2005. “The U.S. already provides more aid for trade than any other country in the world, and we’re proud of that.”

But Mr. Kirk said he didn’t see any politicization of the office calling it the “least partisan” of any federal agency. Its goal is simple: to improve the U.S. economy. Part of his domestic outreach was to restore the public’s faith in international trade, something Mr. Kirk said had wavered during the difficult economic times when President Obama took office.

“There was more anxiety and outright hostility over America’s trade policy than any other time,” Mr. Kirk said, adding that people had the mistaken impression that trade agreements could benefit only U.S. labor or U.S. businesses.

The agenda ahead

Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Mr. Froman, the current trade representative, echoed Mr. Kirk’s statement that it’s just as important for the trade representative to travel inside America’s borders as it is outside.

“USTR’s job is to make trade work, including direct engagement with the American people as we pursue job creation, growth and a stronger middle class,” she said. “The balance of consultation we’ve done at home and tough negotiation and enforcement abroad are paying off for the American people as record exports and expanded trade help create jobs and economic opportunity.”

The agency’s budget, meanwhile, has slowly ticked upward by roughly $7 million since 2008, though the agency is requesting another boost of $5 million next year. Major new trade agreements with the European Union and a coalition of leading Asian industrial powers are in the works, although both accords are in the early phases of negotiation.

Mr. Obama’s international economic policy has drawn fire from a group that’s often a stalwart of the Democratic Party — labor unions.

Unions have often argued that many trade agreements hurt American workers by shipping jobs overseas as corporations take advantage of non-union wages and working conditions in foreign nations.

The nation’s chief labor advocacy group, AFL-CIO, leaves little doubt on its website of its unhappiness with current free-trade orthodoxy.

“The global corporate agenda has infused trade policy with its demands for deregulation, privatization, tax breaks and other financial advantages for Big Business while shrinking the social safety net in the name of ‘labor flexibility,’” the statement said.

Mr. Kirk argued that the White House’s economic policy was not to fight against labor, but to give unions a voice and a seat at the negotiating table.

“A trade policy that is balanced, that is done right, that is thoughtful, that has strong enforcement in labor and environmental provisions is a very critical tool to giving U.S. entrepreneurs and business and farmers access to consumers around the world,” he said.