Commerce Secretary Locke tackles an ambitious export goal

July 7 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke talks about the outlook for trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Locke also discusses the Obama administration's efforts to increase exports and the possible impact on the U.S. economy. Locke talks with Carol Massar and Matt Miller on Bloomberg Television's "Street Smart." (Source: Bloomberg)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 3:17 PM

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.

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