President Obama visited the Port of Tampa Friday and spoke about the benefits of trade with Latin America on his way to the Summit of the Americas in Colombia.
The president reiterated that increasing exports to the rest of the world is a part of his plan to help restore American manufacturing and create jobs.
"Part of building that economy is making sure that we're not a country that's known just for what we buy and what we consume. After all, our middle class was built by workers who invented products and made products and sold products - the best in the world - all around the world. Our economy was thriving when shipping containers left ports like this packed with goods that were stamped with three proud words: Made in America. And those exports supported a lot of good-paying jobs in America, including right here in Florida.
"That's the country I want us to be again," he said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
His effort to help the economy remains in the policy realm after he was unable to pitch in loading cargo at the port.
Obama joked that the Secret Service wouldn't let him get in the overhead cab to operate one of the ship-to-shore container cranes because the agents "didn't want me messing anything up" and threatening the safety of the audience.
Obama said the nation was well on its way to meeting his goal of doubling exports by 2015, helped in large measure by recently ratified free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that his administration helped finalize after a delay to strengthen certain provisions regarding the environment, labor rights and intellectual property protection.
The Colombia free trade agreement takes effect next month.
Latin America offers American companies a huge sales opportunity with the emergence of stronger economies and a rising middle class with disposable income, Obama said.
U.S. exports to the Western Hemisphere have grown 46 percent since 2009 and the region has become the top export destination for U.S. goods, he said.
That expansion of trade has contributed to the growth of the Port of Tampa. Obama said the facility moves more than 2.5 million tons of fertilizer on ships to farmers in the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Other export products handled by the port include engine oils, recycled steel and animal feed.
Obama announced the creation of an initiative called the Small Business Network of Americas
to make it easier for small and midsized companies to get financing and connect with potential buyers in other countries. Under the initiative, the U.S. government will work to expand its Small Business Development Center model to other countries in the hemisphere and link them together to help companies find new trading partners. There are almost 1,000 SBDC service locations run by the Small Business Administration (SBA) in the United States. Mexico has 104 of its own centers and El Salvador has 10 of them, with four more scheduled to open soon.
The initiative calls for the SBA centers to refer export-ready firms to the Commerce Department's U.S. Export Assistance Centers to receive expert counseling and take advantage of the Commercial Service's matchmaking capabilities -- something that is already being done by both agencies (see my story in the December issue titled "SBA opens export doors."
The Small Business Network of Americas will also provide up to $100 million in loan guarantees to encourage banks to make loans to smaller companies.
Colombia hopes the free trade agreement with the United States benefits its small businesses the way a previous U.S. trade deal with Peru disproportionately helped smaller companies in that country, President Juan Manuel Santos said Sunday during a press conference with Obama at the Summit of the Americas.
Obama said that at the same time his administration is pushing to open more markets for U.S. businesses it is taking advantage of its rights under the international trading regime to enforce rules on fair trade. The White House has filed twice as many trade complaints against China in the World Trade Organization as the Bush administration and recently created a trade enforcement unit designed to investigate questionable trade practices around the world.
Rep. Janice Hahn, founder and co-chairman of the congressional PORTS Caucus, said in a statement that Obama's trip to Tampa highlights the importance of ports to the U.S. economy and invited him to visit the Port of Los Angeles, the top container port in the nation.
Hahn is a Democrat from California whose district is near the Port of Los Angeles. She previously was a Los Angeles City councilman.
Check out my March 27 Washington Notebook
to find out more about the PORTS Caucus and its goals. — Eric Kulisch