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Obama taps Froman as U.S. trade representative - White House official

MYT 6:50:01 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday will name top international economic affairs adviser Mike Froman as his choice to be U.S. trade representative, a White House official said, handing the job to a long-time friend who has played a big role in shaping trade policy for the past four years.

U.S. President Barack Obama waves after speaking in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, April 30, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing
U.S. President Barack Obama waves after speaking in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, April 30, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Froman, if confirmed by the Senate, will take the reins as the top U.S. trade ambassador in time to oversee the expected completion of a landmark free-trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact between the United States, Japan and 10 other countries.

The United States and the 27 countries of the European Union are also preparing to launch talks on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a free-trade agreement that would cover half of world economic output.

"The new USTR has both enormous opportunities and enormous challenges that have to be reckoned with," said Charlene Barshefsky, who held the post in the late 1990s under former President Bill Clinton.

Obama will make the announcement at 10:00 EDT (1500 BST), the official said. Reuters reported last week that Froman was in line for the job.

Froman, whose connection to Obama goes back to their days on the Harvard Law Review, is already well known in diplomatic circles for his role in leading U.S. preparations for more than a dozen international economic summit meetings.

He also oversees the administration's economic engagement with China, India, Brazil, Russia, Japan and the European Union and the development of economic strategies for the Middle East and Africa.

The official said Froman had been asked to play a continuing role at the White House on international economic issues.

By moving to USTR, the former Clinton administration official will be elevated to Cabinet status and focus his portfolio more narrowly on trade.

In addition to establishing trade rules for the 21st century through the two regional agreements, the United States must develop better strategies to stop theft of corporate trade secrets and intellectual property that drive economic growth.

Froman needs to "infuse the trade agenda in every aspect in the ways in which U.S. competitiveness can be enhanced and U.S. innovation can be protected," Barshefsky said.

ENTHUSIASM FOR CHOICE

The former Citigroup executive is widely respected by both Republicans and Democrats.

"Froman is a superb choice and will bring both energy and experience to the post ... (It is) good news for all those wishing to see a more globally engaged United States," said Dan Price, who was chief international economic affairs adviser for former President George W. Bush.

Barshefsky, who like Price spoke with Reuters in anticipation of an announcement, was equally enthusiastic.

"He knows the issues. He has a high degree of experience. He's exceptionally intelligent and obviously committed to a more open, equitable global economy," Barshefsky said.

One of Froman's biggest challenges will be meeting the goal of finishing the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks by the end of the year. Japan recently joined the negotiations but will not actually participate formerly until the 18th round in July, increasing doubts of a deal this year.

The United States and the EU also hope to finish their free-trade talks on "one tank of gas," to use Froman's term, meaning in just one to two years. But long-time regulatory differences over issues such as genetically modified crops will make that a difficult negotiation as well.

In the meantime, there are efforts to breathe life into the moribund Doha round of world trade talks by reaching a deal to cut red tape from customs-clearing procedures at the December meeting of the World Trade Organization in Bali.

The United States is also pursuing deals with a subset of WTO members to liberalize international trade in services and to cut tariffs on an expanded list of high-technology goods.

During his confirmation hearing, Froman is likely to face questions on how forcefully Obama will push for "trade promotion authority." That legislation, also known as "fast track," allows the White House to submit trade agreements to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without any amendments.

The trade law tends to divide Democrats in Congress between those who see trade agreements as an engine for economic growth and those who blame them for manufacturing job losses.

Congress last passed a trade promotion authority bill in 2002 after a bitter fight in the House of Representatives.

The Obama administration recently said it was now prepared to work on a trade promotion authority bill, even though Obama did not seek it during his first term.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)

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