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Obama pushes trade agenda ahead of big speech

By Reuters

President Barack Obama called on Saturday for new efforts to open global markets to US goods, highlighting trade before a big speech on Tuesday that will lay out his policy priorities for the coming year.

With the US unemployment rate stuck at a stubbornly high 9.4 percent, Obama said expanded trade was crucial to job creation.

"If we're serious about fighting for American jobs and American businesses, one of the most important things we can do is open up more markets to American goods around the world," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.

His remarks came after Chinese President Hu Jintao completed a four-day US visit that included talks at the White House dominated by trade and economic issues.

Hu's visit required Obama to carefully calibrate the message about the US-China relationship to his domestic audience.

Many Americans are fearful that China's powerhouse manufacturing sector poses a threat to US jobs, but the world's two biggest economies are becoming increasingly intertwined. The United States runs an annual trade deficit with China approaching $270 billion.

Obama said the $100 billion in annual US exports to China was a source of jobs at home. He also touted the $45 billion in commercial deals announced during Hu's visit as well as agreements reached by US and Indian firms during his November trip to Mumbai.

Obama offered few specifics about his trade agenda but mentioned a bilateral trade agreement he reached late last year with South Korea in a signal he will make a vigorous push for its ratification in the U.S. Congress.

He is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, a speech that comes as he grapples with the new political reality of control of the House of Representatives by opposition Republicans.

Looking ahead to his re-election bid in 2012, Obama is seeking to show bipartisanship. Trade is one issue on which he could find common ground with Republicans.

The Republican takeover of the House could spur action on the South Korea pact. Many Democrats still oppose the deal but Obama would need an ample number of their votes to ratify the agreement.

A wide swath of US farm, manufacturing and service industry groups support the Korea pact. But the AFL-CIO, the country's main labor organization, remains opposed, citing concerns ranging from workers' rights to currency manipulation.

In another signal of increased interest in the trade agenda, Obama visited a General Electric Co plant on Friday in Schenectady, New York, that manufactures steam turbines and other products sold around the globe.

During the trip, he announced he was tapping GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt, a free-trade advocate, to head an outside advisory panel on the economy. Immelt replaces former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker in the role.