So what's America's official trade negotiator to do when there's no momentum for international deals inside an administration sensitive to labor union concerns? How about travel the United States giving speeches to American workers, instead.
President Obama's two trade representatives, in fact, have taken more trips inside the country while in office than trotting around the globe in pursuit of the free trade deals that Congress imagined when it elevated the Office of the Trade Representative (USTR) to Cabinet-level status, The Washington Times found in an analysis of travel records.
In all, Mr. Obama's trade representatives have visited 53 U.S. cities, compared with 46 overseas cities and nations since 2009, the records show.
And that, says the just-departed trade representative, was no accident. Ron Kirk said he deliberately traveled the country in a campaign-style effort to listen to and change the minds of labor unions and others who have tried to slow trade deals because of concerns about wage competition, human rights and outsourcing.
"As much as I enjoyed representing the United States around the world, if we were going to be moving forward with an aggressive trade agenda, we're going to have to not just go to Geneva, Paris and Beijing and Africa; we were going to have to go to places like Detroit and Pittsburgh and Maine," Mr. Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, said in an interviews. "We didn't just go and preach the gospel of trade; we listened."
Mr. Kirk, whose successor, former White House economic aide Michael Froman, was confirmed by the Senate just last month, said the domestic travel helped the administration better understand what international trade specifics were needed to improve the U.S. economy.
"I made a conscious decision to invest as much time engaging domestic stakeholders about how to rebuild and move forward our trade policy, [rather] than just the conventional wisdom that all you do is just go negotiate agreements and shove them down everybody's throat," he said.
Mr. Froman was on another domestic trip just this week, visiting the New Balance shoe factory in Norridgewock, Maine. The state's independent U.S. senator, Angus S. King Jr., briefly held up Mr. Froman's nomination last month until Mr. Froman offered to make the trip. The senator's office said the visit was designed to impress on the new trade representative the threat a market-opening deal with Asian economies could pose for the company.
The domestic travel really stands out when compared with the record under President George W. Bush. The USTR did not track travel records under Mr. Bush quite the same way it does now, but an analysis of speeches and press releases from 2001 to 2008 gives a comprehensive picture of where exactly the trade ambassador and his assistants went.
During the Bush administration, trade representatives attended 67 events or meetings in foreign countries and 78 within the U.S. That number is misleading, however, because more than three-fourths of the domestic speeches and meetings were in Washington, where USTR has headquarters.
So excluding "travel" within the nation's capital, trade representatives during the Bush administration attended 67 events overseas and just over a dozen domestically.
In four years, Mr. Kirk and his deputies traveled to a wider range of countries than Mr. Bush's ambassadors, who journeyed mostly to major U.S. trading partners such as China and South Korea, as well as to Switzerland, the headquarters of the World Trade Organization.
Critics see in the numbers a reflection of a White House that places more emphasis on good relations with labor unions at home than on making free trade deals. Mr. Obama ran in 2012 as a protector of the U.S. worker while portraying Republican rival Mitt Romney as an outsourcer of jobs.
The administration also has renegotiated deals — begun under Mr. Bush — with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, but has not made an enthusiastic push to pursue any more trade agreements.
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.
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.
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