By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration laid the groundwork in 2009 to expand exports of U.S. goods even though it failed to resolve differences blocking trade pacts with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said.
"We had to move quickly to restore Americans' belief that our trade policy operated for the good of all the country, not just a handful of large corporate interests that are involved in exports," Kirk told Reuters in an interview on Friday.
"I think we have been able to articulate that policy, make the cultural adjustments we needed here within USTR and then execute against that," Kirk said.
USTR began 2009 quickly with a deal to open markets in Europe for U.S. cattle producers and finished big with news the United States would work with seven countries to negotiate an Asia Pacific trade pact, Kirk said.
Other achievements include persuading China to remove barriers to U.S.-manufactured wind turbines and various enforcement actions against other countries at the World Trade Organization, USTR said.
FOR MANY, BECERRA'S WORDS STILL ECHO
President Barack Obama gave Kirk the job of chief U.S. trade negotiator after Representative Xavier Becerra of California turned down the post, telling a Los Angeles newspaper he had concluded trade "would not be priority No. 1, and perhaps, not even priority No. 2 or 3" in the new administration.
Many believe White House inaction on free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea and Obama's failure to give a promised speech outlining his trade policy have shown the truth of Becerra's words.
Critics charge Obama is too fearful of upsetting Democratic party allies whose support he needs on healthcare reform and climate change legislation to ask lawmakers to vote on the pacts.
"My worry is that, while there is behind-the-scenes work to prepare the pending trade agreements for Congress, the White House will never give the green light to go forward with them because of domestic considerations," Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, said in a separate interview.
That, in turn, undermines U.S. negotiating credibility in world trade talks and other forums, Brady said.
"If we can't pass an agreement with Panama, for example, then clearly the rest of the world won't believe we're serious about the major trade issues," Brady said.
Kirk insisted it was problems with each of the agreements -- tax and labor issues in Panama, anti-union violence and killings in Colombia and automotive trade barriers in South Korea -- that were the real obstacles.
"I would just say to those who are saying in particular the administration hasn't given me a green light, if these things were ready to go the previous administration would have done them. And they didn't," Kirk said.
"Now, having said that, we have been working with Panama and have made great progress with them on the outstanding labor issues and on the tax issues," he said.
"90 PERCENT MORE COMFORTABLE"
Kirk, a former Dallas mayor who lost a bid for the Senate in 2002, acknowledged his inexperience in trade when he started nine months ago.
"I feel like I am 90 percent more comfortable, better at the job than when I was sworn in March the 18th. Which means I've probably only got another 50 percent to go," he joked.
Kirk said he has tried to instill "a sense of urgency" at USTR to find quick, pragmatic solutions to disputes that block U.S. exports rather than let them drag for years.
Kirk also defended Obama's widely-criticized decision to slap tariffs on Chinese-made tires at the behest of U.S. union workers who asked for the relief under an anti-surge provision of China's agreement to join the WTO in 2001.
"Despite what everybody else predicted, the world didn't fall out, we didn't spark a trade war ... For us, this is about making sure we get the full benefit of these trade agreements that we've negotiated," Kirk said.
Turning to the eight-year-old Doha round of world trade talks, Kirk said Obama's election had restored U.S. prestige and generated enormous international goodwill that could help finally bring the talks to a successful conclusion.
"We believe the end is in sight," Kirk said, rejecting the suggestion the negotiations are doomed because of unbridgeable differences between the United States and advanced developing countries like China, Brazil and India.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Vicki Allen)