WASHINGTON - Moving trade to a front burner, President Barack Obama claimed Wednesday that the United States was on track to meet his goal of doubling exports in the next five years.
While many economists and business leaders see that target as overly ambitious, the president has been increasingly linking his trade push with job creation - and trying to blunt a brewing business revolt against his policies ahead of midterm elections.
"Export growth leads to job growth and economic growth," Obama said as he named 18 business, labor and government leaders to a new export advisory council. "At a time when jobs are in short supply, building exports is an imperative."
Obama said the nation's sales abroad grew by 17 percent in the first four months of this year, declaring: "Our efforts are off to a solid start." Yet, while the Commerce Department said exports of goods and services from January through April were up 16.9 percent, imports rose even more - up by 19.6 percent over the same period a year ago.
The early 2010 surges in both exports and imports reflected a rebound in global trade from its deep swoon in 2008 and early 2009 at the depth of the global economic downturn.
But the manufacturing gains and inventory restocking that drove the early stages of the recovery have begun to fade.
Weighing on the global economic recovery are the European debt crisis and lower growth and labor strife in China. Also, recent weak reports on consumer spending, service sector activity and the still-rocky housing market have added to recovery doubts.
With shell-shocked consumers unlikely to power the economic recovery by returning to their free-spending ways, White House officials are counting on trade and business investment to contribute a larger role.
But Obama's goal of doubling exports by 2015 "is challenging. It's going to require a very broad set of initiatives," said Pat Mears, director of international commercial affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, which supports Obama's export goals.