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.
We have some proposals that we're working on, and they're not ready for announcement yet. But first of all, we need to break down a lot of the barriers and the silos within the Department of Commerce and put them all together, so that a business and an entrepreneur looking for help, [wanting] information, can almost go to one stop, one place, to get all this information.
One of the Commerce Department's most important duties is running the census, and the next one will be in 2010. What is the status of sampling, as opposed to actually counting individual people, which has been a big controversy over the years?
We're not doing sampling. The Supreme Court has ruled that statistical sampling is not permitted. So there are absolutely no plans whatsoever, no contemplation whatsoever, of using statistical sampling as we conduct the decennial census.
How will you ensure that everyone is counted?
It appears that in every census for the last several decades, it's proven harder and harder because Americans are not returning surveys, whether census surveys or surveys put out by private-sector marketing firms and product information. You buy a car, and the auto dealer sends you a survey: Are you satisfied with it? I mean, people are not responding. I think in the year 2000 census, the mail-in response rate was about 67 percent—which is why we have over a million people that we're going to be hiring to go door to door to get people to fill out their information. We're trying to make it simpler. This year, it's going to be only 10 basic questions. It should only take about 10 minutes to fill out. It's the largest civilian mobilization for the federal government.
How will you address language differences that citizens might have?
For the first time, in selected communities we will be sending out questionnaires in both English and Spanish. There will be questionnaires available in other languages as well—Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, a whole host of other languages.
Several weeks ago, there was a controversy over whether the census takers will report to you or to the White House, raising questions of politicization. Which will it be?
The White House has assured me that the census reports to me. Press Secretary [Robert] Gibbs has made it very clear that they have no intention of directing and supervising the census. There will be no politicization of the census.
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