Reporting from Mumbai, India —
Many Americans resent India as a “land of call centers and back offices,” President Obama said Saturday, a magnet that has siphoned jobs out of the U.S. economy.
While Indians also feel threatened by American products and companies, Obama said, both countries should set aside their stereotypes and engage as economic partners.
“I’m here because I believe that in our interconnected world, increased commerce between the United States and India can be and will be a win-win proposition for both nations,” Obama told a group of American and Indian executives gathered here for a business summit.
The speech closely followed an announcement by the White House that 20 different American companies had closed deals in India, tentative and signed agreements the administration says will support thousands of U.S. jobs.
As he debuted a bolder message of free trade and globalization, though, Obama preached the importance of engaging with friends and allies without offering a lot of specifics about how, exactly, that might happen.
Republican critics question the depth of the president’s commitment to trade, given that a number of pending free-trade agreements have languished during the two years in which Democrats have held Congress and the White House. The business deals the administration highlighted on Saturday have been in the works for many months.
Yet some business leaders say Obama’s argument, along with the fact that he has personally taken it up with Indian officials and companies, is a big stride in the direction of greater engagement.
The discussion arises as Obama launches a two-week swing through Asian nations, beginning it in the country he most wants to empower in the region. As one of the world’s biggest and fastest growing economies, India is not only a key strategic partner for the U.S. but also a potential counterweight to the unchecked rise of China.
The start of the tour has been rife with symbolism. After landing in Mumbai Saturday, Obama went directly to his hotel – the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, the site of a deadly terrorist attack plotted by Pakistani extremists almost exactly two years ago. Obama checked into the hotel and then met with survivors of the violence that took place there, then offered public remarks before a waterfront dotted with naval ships keeping watch on the proceedings.
The meeting with the business leaders, and a side discussion with entrepreneurs, embodied the thematic message he is now carrying to a domestic and an international audience. In the wake of a bruising midterm election cycle, Obama is now broadcasting a message that is almost exclusively focused on creating and supporting American jobs.
As a practical matter, Obama can claim progress on that goal on the very first day of his mission. The administration announced that American executives had closed deals exceeding $ 14.9 billion involving almost $ 10 billion in exports, a total package supporting almost 54,000 U.S. jobs.
Among the deals announced was a deal between the Boeing Co. and the Indian Air Force for the purchase of 10 C-17 military transport planes, and General Electric Co. to provide a number of gas and steam turbines that, together, constitute the biggest turbine sale ever in India.
“Having the president here, it helps,” said James McNerney, board chairman of Boeing who traveled to Mumbai to participate in the business summit. “For the president to state as a priority, by his presence, that closer cooperation, sharing technology across the two countries, can only help. And in this case, it has.”
McNerney said the strategic relations between the U.S. and India have helped to foster the economic engagement.
“Ever since the civil nuclear deal, which really brought closer ties between India and the United States in a lot of areas, I think the follow-on impact of that has been closer military ties,” McNerney said.
Indeed, that is a factor in the U.S. trade relationship with any strategic partner, though Obama never mentioned it.
Rather, he talked about how he U.S. and India can benefit from doing business together, as long as the sides work out fair arrangements.
Of all the goods that India imports, Obama told the business summit, less than 10% come from the United States. And of all the goods that America exports to the world, less than 2% go to India.
“Our entire trade with your country is still less than our trade with the Netherlands, and this is a country with a smaller population than the city of Mumbai,” Obama said. “As a result, India is only our 12th largest trade partner.”
But Obama also has spoken frequently about protecting U.S. workers, and he has talked disparagingly about companies that “ship American jobs overseas.”
Whether he is about to change course, rhetorically or otherwise, or simply refine an existing message is unclear.
As he makes his way toward the G20 summit in Seoul in a few days, his administration is working hard to craft a deal on the Korea Free Trade Agreement negotiated by President Bush but never taken before Congress by Obama.
It’s hard to blame other nations if they’re skeptical, suggests Bruce Klingner, former deputy chief for Korea in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence.
“The protectionist Democratic Party rhetoric by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign and the ensuing lack of movement by the Obama administration on trade issues have raised global skepticism about the U.S. trade policy,” said Klingner, now senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The protectionist actions and rhetoric have embittered South Korea and make negotiators more resistant to accepting yet more new demands by the United States in return for promises to ratify the KORUS FTA,” he said. “Like the boy who cried wolf, U.S. trade negotiators have little credibility.”
By the time the G20 summit convenes, there may be more light on that subject. Obama will meet with the South Korean president, a summit with the potential to yield a breakthrough. Obama’s job then would be to sell it back home, to a tough audience worried about competition for its beef industry, auto workers and, at the emblematic heart of the matter, call centers.