Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke has one of the most ambitious agendas in the capital. The former governor of Washington State (and the first Chinese-American governor in U.S. history) is President Barack Obama's main emissary to the business community, and his challenges are substantial. Corporate leaders don't generally like federal intervention in the private sector, and they are very skeptical about the new president's brand of government activism. But Locke, 59, insists that Obama is actually much more pragmatic than business leaders might think and that over the long term they will work well together. In an interview last week in his cavernous office near the Washington Mall, the genial lawyer outlined his goals to U.S. News. Excerpts:
What are your objectives for the Commerce Department?
We have a vast amount of resources here that can really help companies prosper, innovate, and create more products and services that would result in more jobs for Americans as well as raising the standard of living, the quality of life for the people not just here in America but around the world.
How do you assess the Obama administration's relationship with the business community?
I think President Obama has a very good relationship with the business community. He's working extra hard on creating more jobs and stabilizing the financial crisis that we have found ourselves in and he has inherited. I think in many ways he has perhaps surprised the business community with just how moderate he has been and how much he is willing to work with them.
What are the priorities of the business community?
Obviously, trying to stabilize the financial markets. If we can get that under control, then credit will begin flowing again. We know that unless we resolve the credit crunch and unless there is stability in the financial sectors, we're not going to have a full recovery. [We're] trying to fix the situation with Detroit, where so...many thousands of companies are suppliers, and look at all the many millions of jobs that depend on that [the auto industry] both directly and indirectly. And we already are beginning to see signs of improvement.
What's the reasoning behind President Obama's proposal to limit tax breaks for U.S. companies operating in foreign countries?
I think the president is trying to strike a balance. How do you level the playing field for U.S. corporations in foreign countries? But also, how do you level the playing field for companies operating in the United States with those operating outside the United States? I believe that the business community was pleasantly surprised by just how reasonable the president's proposal really was.
How is the switch-over to digital television going? The deadline is June 12.
We now have only about 3½ million households across the country that perhaps are not yet prepared for the transition. And that represents only about 2½, 3 percent of the households in America. There are some that are less prepared than others. It seems to be the Southwest, the Albuquerque-Santa Fe area, Sacramento, the Pacific Northwest. Some people are procrastinating. There are $40 coupons [from the government], and you redeem them and can get a converter box, and the converter box is ranging from $40 to $80, so if you get the basic model, using the coupon, it's free.
Overall, how will you assist small and medium-sized businesses?
My mom and dad had a small business—a mom-and-pop grocery store. So many of my friends are entrepreneurs and have small businesses that have 10, 15 employees. And, you know, it's a struggle just to keep up with the latest rules and regulations from the city, the county, or the federal government. They're constantly hustling to find more business, to get more customers to sell their products and services. And that's why I believe it's incumbent upon us to make our information and our resources available to them. Companies and entrepreneurs are so consumed and preoccupied with just making payroll and just running the business, and we have so many different websites, and we can't expect them to navigate all the different bureaus and websites and agencies that we have. Our challenge, our goal, our vision, is to make the Commerce Department more relevant and user friendly for mainstream businesses and entrepreneurs. That also means connecting them to market opportunities around the world. We have a lot of commercial service officers in the United States who can hook up U.S. companies to business opportunities in other countries. We need to advertise, and we need to let American mainstream businesses know of these incredible resources available in the United States in the Commerce Department.