Commerce Secretary Locke tackles an ambitious export goal

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke’s spacious, wood-paneled office features a working fireplace, elegant artwork and other luxurious touches befitting one of the federal government’s top economic officials.

More unusual is the nearly 60-foot-long Chinese dragon kite that hovers over his desk. The piece is not only a nod to the heritage of the first Chinese-American to hold the top Commerce Department job but also evidence of Locke’s hands-on style — aides said he came in one weekend and hung it himself.

It is an approach Locke has taken to running the sprawling department, which plays a crucial role in the Obama administration's plans for fixing the badly broken economy.

Since Locke took office in March 2009, he has earned a reputation as the type of manager eager to know details and wring out new efficiencies. He has pushed the Patent and Trademark Office to shorten the time it takes to get a patent, from 34 months to 12 months. He cajoled the Economic Development Administration, which makes business-development grants to distressed communities, to streamline its approval process. And he brought the 2010 Census in 25 percent under budget, saving taxpayers $1.9 billion.

But those management feats pale next to the challenge he faces as one of the key figures in implementing President Obama’s pledge to double U.S. exports within five years.

The expansion of exports would mean 2 million new jobs, officials calculate, and with the nation desperate for new sources of employment growth, the mission is urgent.

Even before the housing crash and deep recession, the nation’s economic growth was built on a flawed foundation of asset bubbles and excessive consumer debt, Locke said. Coupled with growth driven by innovation in areas such as renewable energy and high-quality manufacturing, he said, exports could form the basis for a new prosperity.

“Clearly we need to export more as a country as part of our economic recovery,” Locke said.

The export goal is ambitious. Countries such as China and India, once thought of mostly as sources of cheap labor, are developing increasingly sophisticated manufacturing capabilities.

Still, Locke said, the potential for expanding U.S exports is plain. Only 1 percent of U.S. companies export products at all, and of those, 58 percent export to just one country, most frequently Canada or Mexico, he said.

“If we can just help those firms export to one or two more countries, we would be able to increase exports exponentially,” he said. In 2010, he noted, U.S. exports increased by 17 percent. The growth was broad based, led by increases in exports of industrial supplies and materials, machinery and food.

For Locke, all of this plays into his prior experience. During the two terms he served as governor of Washington — home to global giants such as Microsoft and Boeing, trade with China more than doubled.

After leaving the governorship, Locke was a partner in the Seattle office of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. There, his work focused on helping U.S. companies break into international markets.

“I’m trying to bring some of those lessons learned” to the Commerce Department, Locke said.

He noted that “Made in the USA” is a phrase that still has clout around the world. “There is a huge hunger and demand for U.S. products,” he said.

In its first two years, the Obama administration has earned a reputation in some quarters for being hostile to business. Some business leaders have complained that the administration has demonized them in its rhetoric, while hamstringing them with new environmental, health-care and financial industry regulations. Locke, however, says the tension has not been obvious in his job, which requires constant interaction with business leaders.

In 2010, Commerce coordinated 31 trade missions in 31 countries with 368 companies. Participating companies anticipate $2 billion in increased exports from the missions, the department says. In 2011, Locke is scheduled to lead four trade missions.

Locke was not the president’s first choice to head Commerce. He got the job only after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg (R), withdrew. Richardson cited an investigation of state contracting, and Gregg his political differences with the president.

Still, Locke was eager to take on the challenge. “I wanted to help the president turn around the economy,” he said. “It has taken the country many years to get to this sorry state of affairs, and we will not be able to turn it around overnight.”

Even so, the process has proven more arduous than many people expected. While the overall economy is expanding, job growth has been anemic and the national unemployment rate has hovered close to 10 percent for a year.

Locke, however, believes the administration is on the right track with its heavy investments in green energy, education and health care.

“It is almost like building the foundation of a house or an office tower,” he said. “All the foundation work takes a long, long time. You don’t really see it. It is all happening below the street level. . . . After that, then things really begin to take off.”