President Barack Obama said congressional passage of a free-trade agreement with South Korea will help create 70,000 U.S. jobs and shows Republicans and Democrats can cooperate on measures to improve the economy.
The trade deal “shows that we are happy to work with Republicans where they are willing to put politics behind the interests of the American people and come up with proposals that are actually going to create jobs,” Obama said in a joint news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
At a state dinner at the White House tonight, the two leaders exchanged toasts, with each calling the other a close friend.
“You have so many new teacher fans in Korea,” Lee told Obama. “And I have to be honest. I think quite a few of them like you more than they like me.”
Obama said the Korean president’s life story is an “inspiration” that “speaks to the truth that, with education and hard work, anything is possible.” In English, Obama said, “We translate it as ‘Yes, we can.’”
Earlier, Obama challenged Republicans, who control the U.S. House, to back his $447 billion jobs plan, which he said will be brought to Congress piecemeal after the Senate blocked consideration of the full plan on Oct. 11.
Lot of Ideas
“Frankly we have not seen a lot of ideas coming forward from Republicans that would indicate that same kind of commitment to job creation,” Obama said. If congressional Republican leaders propose an alternative for infrastructure improvements, “I’ll be right there,” Obama said. “We’ll be ready to go.”
Obama’s package includes tax increases on the wealthy, tax cuts for the middle class and spending for items such as road and bridge repairs and teacher salaries. Obama is pressing Senate Democrats for a series of votes that would force lawmakers to go on record with their positions on individual components of the package.
Obama called House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, later in the day to congratulate him on passing the free-trade agreements.
Boehner “respectfully challenged the president’s assertion” that Republicans hadn’t offered job creation plans, according to a statement from Boehner’s office.
All The Facts
“I want to make sure you have all the facts,” Boehner told Obama, according to the statement. Boehner said House Republicans released a jobs plan in May and said Republicans considered Obama’s proposal and outlined areas “where they believe common ground can be found.”
Boehner and Obama discussed transportation and infrastructure, and the House leader “expressed his desire to do something on the issue, but to do it in a fiscally responsible way,” the statement said.
Obama welcomed Lee, 69, to the White House earlier today, saying the U.S. alliance with South Korea is “unbreakable” and “stronger than it has ever been.” Obama also said the U.S. is “a Pacific nation.”
At the news conference, the leaders said the trade deal represents a “win” for both countries in terms of job creation and economic benefit.
Describing Obama as “one of my closest friends,” Lee said through a translator that relations with the U.S. are built on a “bedrock of stability, peace and progress.”
The visit from Lee “comes at a time that’s really a high point in the bilateral relationship and in our alliance with South Korea,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday. The relationship “has matured over the last two years into a partnership building peace and prosperity globally.”
The South Korea trade deal, which was cleared by Congress last night along with accords with Colombia and Panama, is the biggest for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The U.S. International Trade Commission said it would boost U.S. exports by as much as $10.9 billion in the first year in which it is in full effect. U.S. trade with South Korea totaled $87.6 billion last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The accord with South Korea has a “broader import or meaning for U.S. engagement in Asia,” said Michael Green, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
While Obama set out when he took office to intensify ties with China and increase U.S. leverage in the region through Japan and India, Korea proved to be “the most reliable partner” for the U.S. in Asia, Green said.
Green said he expects today’s discussions between Obama and Lee to focus on “the larger strategic picture and the rise of Chinese power” as well as on expected cuts to the U.S. defense budget and efforts to discourage North Korean nuclear testing or provocations.
Obama and Lee also have developed a “close personal relationship” that has enhanced U.S.-South Korean strategic and economic ties, said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman.
Lee spoke to the House and Senate this afternoon, saying the trade agreement will be a force for stability in Asia. Tonight, Obama is holding a state dinner for Lee at the White House.
In speeches to promote his economic policies, Obama regularly invokes Lee and South Korea to drive home the need for the U.S. to spend on education.
Obama told the crowd at an Oct. 11 fundraiser in Orlando, Florida, that Lee had once told him how demanding South Korean parents are. “He says, they know education is the key to our future, so I’m having to import teachers to teach kids English in the first grade because they know that they want to succeed,” Obama said. “So they’re hiring teachers as fast as they can, and what are we doing? We’re laying them off in droves.”
Tomorrow, Obama and Lee are scheduled to fly to Michigan to tour a General Motors Co. (GM) plant that assembles the Chevrolet Sonic. Obama has said repeatedly that he doesn’t mind Americans driving Korean cars so long as Koreans are buying American cars as well and that the trade agreement could help.
Companies such as Ace Ltd. (ACE), Citigroup Inc. (C) and Pfizer Inc. (PFE) have led the effort to get the South Korea deal passed, while Caterpillar Inc. (CAT), General Electric Co. (GE) and Whirlpool Corp. (WHR) were among the biggest backers of the accord with Colombia.
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