WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday made his second high-profile pitch in a matter of weeks for approval of free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, raising U.S. business community hopes for action this year on the long-stalled deals.
In a speech to the U.S. Business Roundtable comprising top corporate executives, Obama acknowledged that trade has long been a divisive issue "between business and labor, between Democrats and Republicans."
"To those who would reflexively support every and any trade deal, I would say that our competitors have to play fair and our agreements have to be enforced. We can't simply cede more jobs or markets to unfair trade practices.
"At the same time, to those who would reflexively oppose every trade agreement, they need to know that if America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores," Obama said.
Obama barely mentioned trade deals during his first year in office as his administration focused on passing an economic stimulus package and an unfulfilled effort to pass comprehensive health care reform.
He broke the ice in his State of the Union address, when he called for closer trade ties with South Korea, Colombia and Panama and also set a goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years to support 2 million new American jobs.
Although most Republicans support free-trade agreements, the issue is divisive for Democrats who control Congress.
The fact that the South Korea, Colombia and Panama pacts were negotiated under former President George W. Bush also makes them tainted in many Democrat's eyes.
They want Colombia to do more to reduce killings of trade unionists, Panama to make changes to its labor regime and tax haven laws and South Korea to dismantle "non-tariff" barriers that keep out U.S. auto imports.
DOHA ROUND IMPORTANT TOO
Obama gave no timetable for resolving any of those concerns. But like Bush, he argued on Wednesday that opening up new markets was a powerful tool for creating jobs.
"That's why we will work to resolve outstanding issues so that we can move forward on trade agreements with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.
"And that's why we will try to conclude a Doha (world) trade agreement -- not just any agreement, but one that creates real access to key global markets," Obama said.
Doug Goudie, director of international trade policy with the National Association of Manufacturers, said he took seriously the Obama administration's new focus on trade and much appreciated the goal of doubling exports.
"Moving forward on those three FTAS as soon as possible is going to be the best way to jumpstart the rest of their plan," such as increasing the number of small- and medium-sized U.S. companies that export, he said.
Business Roundtable President John Castellani said in a release the business executives discussed with Obama the need for Congress to pass the pending free-trade agreements "as a first step toward the enhanced international trade and investment that is essential to growing the U.S. economy and creating more and better-paying jobs."
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Philip Barbara)