President Obama visited Savannah, home to the country's fastest-growing port, just weeks after announcing a goal to double exports over five years. His packed itinerary didn't include a stop at the port.

With the nation’s jobless rate still high despite the statistical end of the 2009 recession, President Obama in February turned to exports as a means of getting people back to work.

His National Export Initiative set the ambitious goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years, creating 2 million jobs in the process.

To some, the trade pledge rang hollow from an administration that had done little in its year in power to advance pending free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

But Mr. Obama and his Commerce Secretary Gary Locke had a strong corporate ally in Atlanta whose business depends largely on exports.

United Parcel Service Inc. is the world’s largest package delivery company, but in 2010 the company shifted its marketing strategy to focus on its lesser-known logistics capabilities. While North America remains the company’s main market, especially for small packages, UPS has seen much of its growth in recent years come from international operations.

A few weeks after Mr. Obama’s announcement, Mr. Locke held a news conference at a UPS processing facility in Doraville, Ga., to announce a government partnership with the company.

Standing with UPS Chief Executive Scott Davis, who would later be named to the President’s Export Council, Mr. Locke said the U.S. would broaden trade lending through the Export-Import Bank and work with UPS to help companies exporting to only one country find new markets. Less than 1 percent of U.S. companies export, and of those, 58 percent only export to one country, the commerce secretary said.

UPS, which also provides export financing through its capital arm and a variety of resources for small businesses, was on board with Mr. Obama from the outset, but the company still urged quicker action on the free-trade agreements.

“UPS has seen that our export volumes have a double-digit volume growth to countries with which the U.S. has negotiated free-trade agreements,” Mr. Davis said in a speech introducing Mr. Locke.

A few weeks after enacting the National Export Initiative, Mr. Obama visited Savannah to announce a federal program providing rebates for energy-efficiency upgrades. During the brief visit, the president sampled the famous fried chicken at Mrs. Wilkes’ restaurant, toured companies and gave a speech on job growth at Savannah Technical College.

Mr. Obama didn’t visit the port, but during a brief drive across town, Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson pleaded with the president to support the deepening of the Savannah River, a project that will depend heavily on federal funding. In five years, when Mr. Obama’s export goal is to culminate, the river will need to be six feet deeper to accommodate larger ships that will traverse the expanded Panama Canal on their way to East Coast ports by 2014, leaders say.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has recently joined forces with Georgia ports leaders to lobby the White House for the deepening, citing the project’s benefit for the rest of the state and nation.

In a move that would boost exports by an estimated $10-$11 billion annually, the Obama administration in December renegotiated a controversial free-trade agreement with South Korea. The strong Korean community in metro Atlanta and around the state has lobbied for the agreement for three years since it was first signed. Korean Ambassador Han Duk-soo visited Atlanta in early December to sell the agreement, which still must be ratified in both countries’ legislatures.

With 18 percent export growth during the first half of 2010, the U.S. was on track to meet Mr. Obama’s goal. Georgia did its part, with the Port of Savannah fully recovering from the recession and posting record container traffic for the month of October.

Related coverage from the year: 

Commerce Officials: U.S. Should Boost Small Business Exports 

Obama’s Export Goal Too Lofty for High-Tech Firms?

UPS Chief Named to President’s Export Council 

UPS CEO Pitches Free Trade Agreements to Commerce Secretary

Guest Commentary: Georgia and the National Export Initiative

Guest Commentary: Small Business and U.S. Exports

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...