Wherever a President traveled during the dark days of the cold war, he was never more than a few steps away from a military aide who clutched the "football"--a briefcase containing the codes the Commander-in-Chief could use to launch a nuclear strike. As Bill Clinton hits the road these days, he conjures up a far less sinister image: that of a fast-talking supersalesman, traveling the world with sample cases full of glittering American wares. Clinton is such an ardent booster of U.S. exports that he has been chided for acting less like a statesman than a rug merchant. The President's retort recently to workers at a Boeing factory: "I'm not ashamed that I've asked other countries to buy Boeing, and I'll do it again if given half a chance."
Clinton seems bent on creating a whole new Presidential role. Fancying himself a sort of CEO of USA Inc., the President has committed his Administration to the most aggressive export-promotion program in memory. "It's no longer enough just to protect our security interests around the world," says Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown. "We have to protect our commercial interests, too."
Clinton believes that only strong export markets can create the sort of high-skill, high-wage jobs that are at the heart of his economic strategy. That's why the President lobbied so fiercely for the North American Free Trade Agreement, then immediately hopped on a plane to host an unprecedented summit of Pacific Rim leaders in Seattle on Nov. 20. Back in Washington, he announced on Nov. 23 the lifting of remaining economic sanctions against South Africa, creating yet another opportunity for U.S. exporters.
That's not all. Clinton is pushing hard to conclude global trade talks by Dec. 15. He is moving to dismantle cold war export restrictions that hobble sales of high-tech equipment. And he is leaning hard on officials--from Cabinet officers to lowly bureaucrats--to help business sell abroad. The President personally is setting the example. He telephoned Saudi Arabia's King Fahd this past summer, for instance, to help clinch multibillion-dollar orders for U.S. airplanes and telecommunications equipment. Many executives love the boost from the top. "Every other head of state does it, so why not him?" says J. Dennis Bonney, vice-chairman of Chevron Corp. "I'm all for it."
GATT GAMBIT. The new emphasis is even evident at Foggy Bottom. Diplomats are taking sales seminars before heading off to their foreign posts. And there has already been some payoff: The embassy in Bahrain helped nail down Gulf Air's decision on Nov. 11 to purchase up to 12 Boeing 777s, a potential $2 billion deal, and the embassy in Brussels aided Pacific Telesis Group in landing a $300 million-a-year contract with Belgium's phone company. "The entire Administration appears to be more proactive," says Dean D. Thornton, president of Boeing Co.'s Commercial Airplane Group, which is battling with Europe's Airbus Industrie. "Frankly, it's the thing we bitch about when the French do it. But as long as it's done tenderly, we approve."
Tender, though, is hardly the word for Clinton's hard-charging approach. At the meeting of the 15-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, he pressed reluctant Asian leaders to rally around a vague commitment to greater economic integration down the road. In so doing, he sent a blunt message to the Europeans who are stalling global trade talks: If the EC fails to cut a deal by a mid-December deadline for wrapping up seven years of negotiations on the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade, the U.S. may seek regional accords with Asia and Latin America.
The power play just might work. Only a few months ago, the GATT talks were moribund, hopelessly deadlocked over France's refusal to give up subsidies for its farmers. Now, optimism is growing that the EC and the U.S. will work out an 11th-hour concession to buy French support. "Momentum is now overwhelmingly in favor of an agreement," says Commerce Under Secretary Jeffrey E. Garten. The major winners from a strong GATT agreement would include financial services, high tech, and agribusiness. But, says Joseph T. Gorman, chairman of TRW Inc.: "It's going to be very difficult to come away with a good agreement in the time allotted."
An even bigger market-access challenge awaits Clinton in February, when the President meets with Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa to conclude an agreement aimed at reducing Japan's $50 billion trade surplus with the U.S. At a meeting on the eve of the APEC summit, Clinton failed to get Hosokawa to accept numerical targets for opening Japanese markets to exports. Some businesses are skeptical that the effort will bear fruit. "Why would countries with significant trade surpluses with the U.S. open their markets because there's some new cheerleader in the Administration?" asks Kevin L. Kearns, president of the U.S. Business & Industrial Council.
Clinton has moved swiftly in areas where he has had a free hand. The most important change has been the easing of controls on sales to the former Soviet bloc and China. By yearend, he will remove some export restrictions on computer and telecommunications equipment potentially worth $37 billion. Another move is coming next spring, when NATO is expected to eliminate the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), freeing up billions more in potential high-tech exports.
ASIAN THORNS. The Administration has also moved to make the government more efficient at pushing foreign sales. The Overseas Private Investment Corp. has received $40 million in new funds to insure U.S. investments in the former Soviet Union. And Clinton is adding $150 million in funding for the Export-Import Bank. And on Nov. 22, the Commerce Dept. and the Environmental Protection Agency announced a plan to change regulations and take other steps to help U.S. companies tap the $300 billion global environmental technologies market.
Of course, it's not all smooth sailing for Clinton's trade policy. China, the biggest growth market, poses the thorniest problems. By demanding progress on human rights as a condition for renewing China's most-favored-nation trade status next year, Clinton has set the stage for a showdown that could frustrate his export goals. A similar conflict is brewing over workers' rights in Indonesia, another hot Asian economy.
Another risk for Clinton is overpersonalizing his role as peddler-in-chief. But Clinton has no intention of playing Willy Loman, unable to keep up with a changing world. The budding supersalesman knows that economic growth through exports may be the best insurance against his own early retirement.
CORPORATE EMISSARY Clinton is personally pushing U.S. companies' overseas projects, such as a $10 billion jet and telecom deal with Saudi Arabia. Cabinet and embassy officials are being urged to aggressively hawk U.S. wares, too. GOOD-BYE EXPORT CONTROLS The Administration is moving to scrap COCOM, the cold war export control system. The effort has freed up $37 billion in potential computer and telecom sales. WAR CHEST To promote exports and counter foreign governments that link aid to sales, Washington is pledging $150 million in added funding for the Export-Import Bank. COURTING CHINA As a goodwill gesture, Clinton has approved the sale of an $8 million Cray supercomputer to Beijing. He also is lifting a ban on key components for China's nuclear power plants--good news for General Electric. TO RUSSIA WITH LOANS Overseas Private Investment Corp. funding has been upped to provide $2.5 billion in loan guarantees and insurance for U.S. companies investing in joint projects in Russia. DUELING WITH COPYRIGHT PIRATES The U.S. Trade Representative is working to persuade foreign governments to enforce intellectual property protections. The potential big winners: Hollywood and software developers. DATA: BUSINESS WEEK