President Barack Obama, increasingly hemmed in by promises that have proved more difficult to keep than to make, will arrive in New Orleans on Friday to speak on a subject where another White House goal seems all but out of reach: doubling the country’s exports by 2015.
The president set that deadline almost four years ago, reckoning that such an increase would produce as many as 2 million jobs and help lift the U.S. economy out of a deep recession. He ordered a group of top Cabinet officials to meet regularly and execute a National Export Strategy.
And for a while, it seemed like an ambitious target the country might actually hit. As recently as 2012, it looked like exports would grow fast enough each year to pull it off.
Now, it appears more or less impossible, economists say. In fact, it is an open question whether the president will even bring up the 2015 target date in his speech at the Port of New Orleans, though the White House says he plans to speak on “the importance of taking measures to grow the economy and create jobs by increasing our exports.”
Like other complex problems that Obama has confronted in his second term — the Syrian conflict, glitches with the “Obamacare” rollout, the slow pace of job growth — the president can point to forces outside his control, but he faces criticism nonetheless.
“The doubling exports goal was unrealistic from the get-go and became more unrealistic with the absence of policy follow-through,” said Gary Hufbauer, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He blamed the president for failing to push measures that free-trade advocates argue would boost growth, like expanding the U.S. Export-Import Bank or dropping taxes on profits that U.S. companies earn abroad.
Other economists emphasize factors beyond the president’s influence. “The major reason for the slowdown in U.S. export growth over the past two years has been sluggish economic growth in America’s major trading partners,” Wells Fargo economist Jay Bryson wrote in a report last month.
Also, the real value of the American dollar has crept higher, making U.S. products more expensive abroad.
And even if exports won’t reach $3.2 trillion in 2014 — double what they were in 2009 — they have grown steadily over the past few years, hitting $2.2 trillion in 2012.
Still, whether the president has done enough or not, there seems to be little disagreement that exports will not have doubled by the end of next year. “The goal to double exports in five years is now essentially out of reach,” Bryson wrote.
In other words, if the president is hoping to use his speech in New Orleans to distract from criticism over his healthcare overhaul, he will still be treading on disputed ground, where progress has fallen short and policy solutions remain up for debate.
Not that the president or local Democrats have signaled any kind of retreat on the subject of health care.
Ahead of the president’s visit on Friday, the White House organized a conference call with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson among others, criticizing Gov. Bobby Jindal for refusing to expand the state’s Medicaid program in line with the Affordable Care Act.
That expansion would have been a key part of the law, cutting the number of Americans who have to go uninsured. But the Supreme Court ruled last year that the federal government could not force states to go along. Some conservative governors — Jindal among them — have continued to resist the idea, arguing that it will cost their states more than they can afford in the long run.
At a press conference on Thursday, the governor directed some distinctly unwelcoming remarks at the president: “It is becoming clear, and it will become much more clear over the next months and years, that Obamacare is not smart policy and will not work.”
In response, Peterson, Landrieu and David Simas, a deputy White House adviser, accused the governor of making a decision on Medicaid that was more about politics than improving health care.
“A large number of Louisiana citizens are going to be left out in the cold,” Landrieu said, adding, “It really is a no-brainer. I just think you have to keep making the case.”
Peterson said she would author another bill at the next legislative session in Baton Rouge aimed at forcing the governor’s hand on the Medicaid expansion. “This fight is far from over,” she said.
Still, the White House said Obama will stick to the economy and exports in his remarks in New Orleans on Friday. Asked if the president will be announcing any specific policy proposals, Simas would only say, “Stay tuned.”
It will be Obama’s seventh visit to Louisiana since taking office and his fourth public appearance in New Orleans, a Democratic stronghold that is likely to give the president a warm welcome.
He got a rousing reception in New Orleans last year at the National Urban League’s annual gathering, complete with chants of “four more years.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office said she will travel with the president on Air Force One but won’t be able to attend the speech because of previously scheduled events in Lake Charles. Without going into specifics, her office said she plans to use the face-time with Obama “to address several key issues.”
Republicans took her plans to be out of town as a sign that Landrieu is trying to distance herself from the health care law as her re-election campaign revs up.
Roger Villere, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, released a statement Thursday that referred to the 92,000 residents in Louisiana who he said will have their existing health insurance canceled as a result of the law, asking, “Will Mary have the audacity to stand beside the president and act as if everything is normal?”