Obama should play the Seattle card

The D.C. budget fight over sequestration is about the role of government. Seattle is a great illustration of the stake for job creation that could disappear if the government isn't helping.
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The Port of Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

The D.C. budget fight over sequestration is about the role of government. Seattle is a great illustration of the stake for job creation that could disappear if the government isn't helping.

The great national debate is on the proper role of government, spanning everything from environmental action to health care. We accept the need to tax ourselves to support an ability to defend ourselves from a military threat. Do we also support the ability to defend ourselves from economic threats?

The major concern of the American people is the economy and jobs. It surprises me that the Obama administration has not used one of the tools handed it by Congress to put a spotlight on a necessary role of government that is directly tied to employment. And the administration’s strategists ought to be thinking of how they can involve Seattle, with its global orientation, in playing up their position.

This tool is the requirement to develop annually a National Export Strategy. Exports are a part of a critical part of our economic performance, our ability to compete. The January trade deficit increased. The concern for our competiveness is reflected in political polls show that the American public is not supportive of trade as they read about jobs moving overseas or have a friend or family member impacted.

The American public recognizes that the world economy has changed. They do not seem to have confidence that we can compete in a battle for jobs and prosperity. President Bush in his last two years and President Obama have not been given the authority by Congress to negotiate new trade agreements, this is now over six years. Without this authority, the discussions on a Trans Pacific Partnership or a European Free Trade Agreement will remain verbal.

I cannot understand why the administration does not use the process of the development of the strategy and its implementation to solicit ideas around the country and build support for their programs. The Obama administration has developed a National Export Initiative. This establishes a goal to increase exports based on the strategy. The administration needs to put a spotlight a necessary role for government in this effort and rebuild confidence in our ability to compete.

First, to be successful in exporting, United States needs a competitive strategy. What is the education, research and infrastructure requirements to have our goods and services sell in international markets? Government provides the platform for a successful company. Jobs are the most important priority in other countries. They have strategies and programs to assist their companies. In many countries, the business is even a state agency or it is state controlled. We are essentially competing against government agencies. It is not uncommon to require the transfer of technology, a local partner or other requirements that are a gateway for doing business. The beltway leadership has philological discussions about the role of government while overseas, it is the government. We may think this is unfair but it is the reality.

In the mid-1990s, Congress reauthorized the Export-Import Bank. This is the agency that assists Boeing with financing plane sales. They also established a Trade Promotion Coordinating Council of relevant federal agencies such as Commerce, Treasury and State, with the Department of Commerce in the lead. This group is required to develop the National Export Strategy.

President Obama also has a President’s Export Council. W. James McNerney, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer of the Boeing Company, is the chair.

But even in a trade dependent city like Seattle, few understand what our government is doing.

I called the Commerce Department a few years ago and talked to a senior official I knew. I suggested field hearings for the strategy and offered Seattle. (He told me there were rumors at Commerce that someone outside the beltway had read the strategy and now he knew who it was.)

If members of the Trade Promotion Coordinating Council came to Seattle for a day, it would give our companies the opportunity to present how they can be assisted in being successful. How well is trade finance working for smaller companies? Can assistance be made more efficient? Education is a multimillion dollar service export, what can be improved? What about international tourism?

The Pacific Northwest and Seattle provide a wonderful microcosm of trade of goods and service by all sizes of companies, international tourism and education. We would be a one-stop shop for the administration to listen. More importantly from a political perspective, administration officials here would have the opportunity to publicize what we are doing. It would graphically present the change in the global economy and how other companies play the game. 

Finally, a hearing in Seattle might open the window to a neglected area of attention by Congress, investment attraction. There are a few people in a Commerce Department group called Select America. A few years ago it was two people with brochures. That has been increased to 11 with better brochures -- while other countries have entire agencies to do the same work. The degree of incentives offered to move your production offshore can include, waiving taxes including national taxes, training, and infrastructure and even building the company’s facility. In the United States, we look inward and regret the interstate competition.

I have never seen a study of what other countries do. But if a hand tool manufacture movies 1,000 manufacturing jobs to China and then brings the tools into the United States, an export become an import. We may not like what others do but we better understand their programs.

We have been very fortunate. We are now facing new realities. China, Brazil, and India have developed and Europe, Korea, Japan provide sophisticated products. We must understand the strategies, programs and organizations that other countries use. We must aggressively assist our companies to be competitive and level the global playing field. We must recognize the bigger threat to our security might be a $5,000 dollar car or the new jet plane from China and not a missile from North Korea. The administration needs to get on the road and tell its story.


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