Obama backs the workers and free trade

Barack Obama on Friday promised to promote free trade as US president, but said that future trade deals must benefit all Americans – not just big corporations.

The commitment came as the president-elect nominated a supporter of open markets as US trade representative, while choosing a champion of workers’ rights as labour secretary.

Mr Obama said Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, would push to open more markets to US products as trade representative. But deals must include tough labour and environmental standards. “He knows there is nothing inconsistent about standing up for free trade and standing up for American workers,” said the president-elect.

The choice of Mr Kirk sent a reassuring signal to supporters of trade liberalisation because he was an advocate of free trade as mayor and backed the North American Free Trade Agreement. He was elected as the first black mayor of Dallas in 1995 and served for six years before stepping down to make an unsuccessful run for the US Senate.

Some trade experts voiced concern at his lack of experience in international talks, but the US Chamber of Commerce praised his “keen understanding” of trade and its benefits. Mr Kirk is expected to work closely with Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor and another free-trade advocate, who has been nominated as commerce secretary.

However, the announcement of Hilda Solis, a California congresswoman and critic of recent trade deals, as labour secretary highlighted the risk of tension within the Obama administration over the issue.

The president-elect hailed Ms Solis’s work in Congress to protect workers’ rights and promote strong unions and said she would bring the same approach to her new job. Mr Obama was under pressure from union leaders, who provided key support in the election campaign, to appoint one of their allies to the labour department.

He also moved to burnish his bipartisan credentials on Friday by appointing Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from Illinois, as transportation secretary.

If confirmed, he would become the second Republican in the cabinet, along with Robert Gates, President George W. Bush’s defence secretary, who has agreed to stay on in the post in the new administration.

Mr LaHood, a former member of the House transportation and infrastructure committee, is known as a consensus-builder who has often irritated fellow Republicans by working across party lines.

He is expected to play a key role in overseeing investment in transportation infrastructure as part of Mr Obama’s proposed economic stimulus package.

The president-elect said millions of jobs would be created by rebuilding the country’s ageing roads and bridges and developing energy-efficient vehicles.

Friday marked the end of a blizzard of appointments this week as Mr Obama raced to complete his cabinet line-up before leaving this weekend for a Christmas break in Hawaii.

Senior intelligence positions are the only top-level posts still to be filled. Dennis Blair, a retired admiral and former head of the US Pacific Command, is considered a leading contender to become director of national intelligence.

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