Declaring that “free trade means good-paying jobs for Americans,” President Bush used the nation’s largest helicopter manufacturer as a backdrop Wednesday to pressure Congress to pass three trade agreements that are among the top priorities of his final year in office.
Singling out a proposed trade agreement with Colombia, Bush said its approval would mean jobs for Americans and support for an ally battling drug crime and political insurrection.
Bush made his comments at Robinson Helicopter Co. in Torrance, a firm thriving on the strength of its international business.
Frank Robinson, who started the company in 1973, said the firm was selling 70% of its products overseas.
But Robinson has not been shy about pointing out the benefits that his company has found in the cheap dollar -- a reality Bush ignored as he and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the spotless plant.
The stop was the first on a three-day tour devoted to promoting the agenda Bush outlined in his State of the Union address Monday.
He will also speak on his anti-terrorism efforts before a Nevada policy research group in Las Vegas, and on the economy at the headquarters of the Hallmark greeting card company in Kansas City, Mo.
He coupled his cross-country sales pitch with events to raise money for Republicans.
At a luncheon at the Bel-Air home of venture capitalist Elliott Broidy and at an early dinner in Hillsborough in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bush expected to raise more than $3.2 million for the Republican National Committee, a party official said.
Bush also plans fundraising stops today and Friday in Nevada, Colorado and Missouri.
Bush, promoting trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, could hardly have found a better example of the effects trade can have on a company than Robinson Helicopter. The president’s backdrop was a collection of orange, red, yellow, gold and blue two- and four-seat helicopters, each a shiny symbol of the company’s sales growth.
Robinson produces more helicopters than better-known manufacturers Sikorsky and Bell combined, and has service centers in 50 countries, including China and Russia.
Nor could Bush have found a better advertisement for the beneficial effects of the low-value dollar.
When prices are set in dollars, stronger foreign currencies reach further -- and can buy more American goods. That is the flip side of Washington’s oft-stated goal of a strong dollar, which makes it cheaper for American consumers to buy imported goods.
Bush pointed out that the proposed Colombia free-trade agreement would eliminate that nation’s tariffs on helicopters, currently as high as 10%, and its 5% duty on helicopter parts.
“It matters to our economy, and it matters to the jobs right here,” Bush said.
In Washington, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade, promised to hold up the agreements until a new program was approved to aid U.S. workers who lost their jobs because of foreign competition.
“I simply cannot support, or consider moving, these agreements in the Senate until we realize the goal of expanded and reauthorized trade adjustment assistance,” Baucus said in a speech at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Baucus, like other leading Democrats, cited other concerns about the trade agreements.
He questioned whether Colombia had “made sufficient improvements in the apprehension and prosecution of persons responsible for the killing of labor leaders.”
And he has indicated he will hold up the South Korea agreement until the nation lifts its ban on U.S. beef.
The Panamanian agreement is also in trouble with lawmakers from both parties because the country’s legislature elected a leader who is wanted in the slaying of a U.S. soldier.
But Bush praised efforts by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to fight drug lords, and he emphasized that the U.S. needed allies in the region.
“If we reject this opportunity to support a friend with good economic policy, if we turn down this free-trade agreement, it will hurt our relations in South America,” he said.
“It will give the voices of false populism something to say,” he added, referring to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“It is in our strategic interests that we support democracies in our neighborhood. And it’s in our strategic interest and our economic interest that the United States Congress passes this free-trade agreement with Colombia.”
As much as lowered tariffs would mean Robinson’s helicopters would cost less overseas, the real price advantage has come from the falling dollar.
“We love to see the dollar get as low as possible,” Robinson said in the fall.
The math is simple: The lower the dollar, the cheaper his $400,000 R44 Raven II helicopters are for foreign customers, who buy about two-thirds of the 800 commercial helicopters his company makes each year.
Regardless of the role of the cheap dollar, Bush said, “You can’t tell the people at Robinson Helicopter that trade isn’t good.
“When 70% of that which you manufacture gets sold somewhere else other than the United States, they ought to have a sign walking in here and say, ‘Trade is not only good, it is great; and we want the federal government to make it easier for us to sell products.’ ”
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.