Reporting from Mumbai, India, and Washington — President Obama on Saturday announced a loosening of U.S. restrictions in trade with India and unveiled almost $10 billion in export deals he said could lead to 50,000 American jobs, as he moved quickly to show a laser-like focus on the economy after a bruising midterm election.
Although many of the agreements, including the sale of Boeing aircraft and General Electric turbines, have been in discussion for some time, Obama held up the deals as examples of the great potential for expanding trade and commercial links between the world's two largest democracies.
But as he launched a 10-day, four-nation Asia tour aimed at opening up foreign markets for U.S. goods, the president's remarks pointed up the challenges he faces trying to craft a vision for the global economy that will be palatable to both Americans and export-driven Asian economies.
Obama's task has been complicated by America's slow economic growth and high unemployment, which have not only cost him politically at home but weakened his hand on the international stage.
Although the president enjoys widespread popularity in Asia, his efforts to rebalance world trade have aroused suspicion in India and elsewhere. So has his tough talk on the outsourcing of U.S. jobs abroad.
"I want to be honest," Obama said at a business summit here with U.S. and Indian executives. "There are many Americans whose only experience with trade and globalization has been a shuttered factory or a job that was shipped overseas."
As for India, he added, the perception in the U.S. is it's "a land of call centers and back offices."
Obama called this an "old stereotype," noting that it ignores billions of dollars invested by Indian companies in the United States and the partnerships between U.S. firms and Indian entrepreneurs that are developing India's countryside.
"It is a dynamic two-way relationship that is creating jobs, growth and higher living standards in both countries," he said.
But as the president debuted a message of globalization as a key to America's return to prosperity, he did not offer many specifics about how that might happen.
Trade of goods between the U.S. and India has more than tripled in the last decade and is expected to hit $50 billion this year. India enjoys a significant surplus, but U.S. shipments to India are growing at a faster rate than in the other direction — a trend that should get a boost from the deals unveiled Saturday.
As part of that effort, the Obama administration said it would support India's full membership in nuclear nonproliferation organizations, easing restrictions on trade with India on certain technologies that were put in place after the country's nuclear weapons tests in 1998.
The easing of controls marks a strengthening of U.S. strategic ties with India, a country that Obama wants most to empower in the region, for American security as well as economic interests.
It's no accident that China is not on Obama's itinerary, nor that he not only began his Asia tour in India but is spending more days here than anywhere else.
As one of the world's fastest-growing economies, India is not only a key strategic partner for the U.S. but also a potential counterweight to the rapid rise of China.
Obama's broad security interests in the region were evident as he landed in Mumbai on Saturday afternoon. He went directly to the Taj Mahal hotel, one of the sites of a deadly terrorist attack plotted by Pakistani extremists two years ago.
But the president made no bones about his overarching objective of his visit to India and other Asian lands: He is on a road trip to promote America Inc.
From India he will make a stop at his boyhood home of Indonesia, then South Korea for the Group of 20 summit, and finally Japan, where he will meet with members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
"For America, this is a jobs strategy," Obama said, reciting his pledge to Americans to double exports in five years. "As we recover from this recession, we are determined to rebuild our economy on a new, stronger foundation for growth."
He made little mention of India as the major destination for American outsourcing of all sorts of software, information and telemarketing services. About 60% of India's $50-billion IT outsourcing industry is derived from sales to the U.S.
Outsourcing of jobs was a dominant theme during the midterm election campaigns, employed by both parties, and in August, Ohio's governor banned the outsourcing of state business. Earlier this summer the U.S. hiked fees for employment visas by $2,000, a move that Indian companies saw as protectionist and directed toward them, although Obama administration officials in Mumbai sought to dispel that perception.
Even as he is pounding away at his mission to create American jobs, Obama is using the opportunity to promote the benefits of the global economy.
His first day in India also gave Obama a chance to improve relations with business leaders at home who haven't always been on the same page on economic issues.
Among the deals announced was a deal between Boeing and the Indian air force for the purchase of 10 C-17 military transport planes, and General Electric Co. to provide a number of gas and steam turbines that, together, constitute the biggest turbine sale ever in India.
"Having the president here, it helps," said James McNerney Jr., chairman and chief executive of Boeing, who traveled to Mumbai to participate in the business summit. "For the president to state as a priority, by his presence, that closer cooperation, sharing technology across the two countries, can only help. And in this case, it has."
Parsons of the Washington bureau reported from Mumbai. Times staff writer Lee reported from Washington.