Obama Touts Trade Policy on Route to Colombia

President cites increase in exports to Western Hemisphere but Jeb Bush says focus on trade is "three years too late."

President Barack Obama on Friday told U.S. workers he would be thinking of them as he spends a weekend in Colombia trying to open new Latin American markets for U.S. goods.

Obama made a symbolic domestic political point -- in some of the most contested political territory in the country -- in a stopover in Florida, before flying to the Summit of the Americas in the resort city of Cartagena.

"While I am in Colombia talking to other leaders ... I am going to be thinking about you," Obama said, in a speech in the port of Tampa, a key gateway to U.S. exports to Latin America.

"I am going to be thinking about how we can get more business, access to more markets and more customers in the region," he said.

"I want us selling stuff and I want to put more Americans back to work."

White House officials have frequently in the past framed Obama's foreign trips as de-facto trade missions, to head off claims that he cares more about striding the world stage than the pain of voters in post-recession America.

The task took on extra urgency this year, with Obama's presumptive Republican foe in November's election, Mitt Romney, coiled to pounce on any administration misstep.

Obama argued that he was well on the way to achieving his goal of doubling U.S. exports by the end of 2014, and said recent trade deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea would help put Americans back to work.

"In Latin America alone over the past decade, tens of millions of people have stepped out of poverty and into the middle class," he said, arguing that such change was good for gateway cities like Tampa.

"Our exports to the Western Hemisphere are up by 46% since 2009 ... (that) is a big deal for Tampa," Obama said.

Tampa lies in central Florida -- territory that is packed with swing voters and will be crucial in Obama's fight to beat Romney and win a second White House term on November 6.

It will also host the Republican presidential nominating convention in August.

In a Quinnipiac University poll taken last month, Obama led Romney in Florida -- the largest battleground state which has 29 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency -- by 49% to 42%.

But former Florida Republican governor Jeb Bush, who has endorsed Romney's White House bid, challenged Obama's claims that his policies had improved Florida's economy.

"President Obama's recent decision to focus on trade -- a vital component of Florida's economy -- comes three years too late," Bush said, saying the president dragged his feet on ratifying trade pacts with Panama and Colombia.

"Instead, President Obama bowed to political pressure from powerful labor unions to stall these agreements.

"While President Obama played politics, Floridians suffered, and the US lost $1 billion in agricultural exports to Colombia alone."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012

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