While the housing sector's troubles continue to drag down the U.S. economy, manufacturing is doing well, largely because of strong sales overseas.
The exports boom has helped the manufacturing sector grow at a pace three times faster than the rest of the economy. According to federal data released last week, exports rose for the third straight month in November to nearly $160 billion.
Overseas customers are buying more U.S. airplanes, pharmaceuticals, foods, industrial supplies, cotton, computers and more.
President Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015. To help, the U.S. Export-Import Bank announced last week it will identify 5,000 small businesses and help them get loans to boost their ability to export. In addition, the bank recently agreed to help Pakistan get financing to buy 150 locomotives made by General Electric Co. in Erie, Pa.
The White House also plans to push the new Congress to approve free trade agreements that already have been worked out with other countries.
Last week, Tom Donohue, who heads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called for passage of the trade agreements in his annual "State of American Business" address.
"The administration must work urgently with the new Congress to approve the South Korean, Colombian and Panama agreements," he said. "We will pull out all the stops we can to help the administration get the votes to pass these bills."
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the administration intends to get the South Korean trade agreement completed in the first half of the year.
The agreement is important to many U.S. companies because South Korea is a large and sophisticated market that imports about a quarter of a trillion dollars worth of goods from other countries each year. The FTA with Seoul would be the biggest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
But congressional approval is not guaranteed because of strong opposition from many unions. The United Auto Workers supports the deal because it may help U.S. automakers sell more vehicles in that big market. But the AFL-CIO — the labor umbrella group — is opposed because many union members fear that trade agreements end up hurting U.S. workers by allowing more imports into the country. They point to jobs that moved to Mexico after NAFTA went into effect, and they worry that over time, the South Koreans would get more out of the deal than Americans would.