U.S. President Barack Obama is focusing on trade and jobs during his current Asian tour. His administration has set a goal of creating two million new jobs for American workers. One way it hopes to do that is by completing a long-delayed free trade agreement with South Korea, and agreements with other countries across Asia and the Pacific.
Ellicott Dredges in the eastern U.S. port city of Baltimore manufactures dredging equipment and supports free trade. "Ellicott is a company that was built on trade. We built all of the dredges used in the original construction of the Panama Canal, so ever since then we've cared about trade," said company president Peter Bowe. He said Ellicott needs to look for opportunities anywhere in the world where there is a demand for dredges. "A dredge just like this is shipping next week to Mexico for flood control. The dredge behind me in the next bay is going to Brazil to mine aluminum, and then the dredge behind the one to Brazil is going to Nigeria to mine sand," he said.
Bowe says the United States needs the pending free trade agreement with South Korea, and others like it. If approved, the deal would lead to the elimination of eight percent tariffs on the import of dredges his company makes. The U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement was signed in 2007, but has been stalled in the U.S. Congress since then largely because of opposition from the auto and beef industry.
President Obama has pledged to resolve any remaining obstacles to the agreement before the G-20 summit this week. Even so, some worry the United States is falling behind. A growing number of Asian countries have already entered into bilateral free trade agreements.
Just last month, the European Union signed its own free trade agreement with South Korea that takes effect next July. State Department officials say it is absolutely essential that the U.S. succeed with South Korea and strengthen economic ties with other countries in Asia.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Malaysia last week, after meeting with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. "It's a bit of a surprise to some that United States does more trade with the ASEAN countries than anyone else in Asia," she said.
The White House says that during President Obama's visit to India, Indian and U.S. companies discussed or signed nearly $15 billion in deals that will support more than 50,000 jobs in the United States.
Daniel Ikenson of the Cato Instate says momentum is building in Washington for free trade agreements. "There are some members of Congress, there are some voices within the administration saying we are being left behind, we need to get this Korea agreement done," he said.
Analysts say Republican gains in the recently concluded congressional elections should make it easier to get free trade agreements approved, but obstacles remain.
Ford Motor Company took out ads in major U.S. newspapers last week and voiced its opposition to the South Korean trade deal on its Web site. Analysts note that some Democrats would rather President Obama focus on other trade agreements and not deals, like the one with South Korea, hammered out by the previous administration.
Back at Ellicott Dredges in Baltimore, Peter Bowe says trade should not be a partisan issue. "I am concerned because clearly the election reflected concern about jobs and we need Congress to recognize that exports create jobs and that free trade agreements which promote exports help create jobs not the other way around," he said.
Whether that happens or trade gets lost in a post-election political tug of war is unclear.