WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Tuesday he is leaving the post in late February, and trade experts are speculating who might take his place.

This story first appeared in the January 23, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Among the possible contenders are Michael Froman, deputy assistant to President Obama and deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs; Lael Brainard, undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department, and Francisco Sanchez, undersecretary for international trade at the Commerce Department, according to industry sources.

Kirk’s departure, after more than four years at the helm of the President’s lead trade agency, wasn’t unexpected, as many cabinet officials are choosing to leave as the second term begins.

“Together, we have made great strides to bring about the President’s vision of a more robust, responsible and responsive trade policy that opens markets to products stamped Made in America, and enforces Americans’ trade rights around the world, and does so in a way that is more consistent with America’s core values on issues like the rights of workers and the environment,” said Kirk.

As USTR, Kirk is credited for helping finalize free-trade negotiations with Colombia, Panama and South Korea and ushering them through Congress, as well as advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations between the U.S. and 10 other countries. He also helped establish the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center, which enforces trade agreements and facilitates filing unfair trade practices cases at the World Trade Organization.

The top contender for Kirk’s position appears to be Froman.

“He has been in trade policy circles for a long time,” said David Spooner, an international trade lawyer at Squire Sanders. “By all accounts, he’s a hard driver, is supersmart and is close to the President. All three things are key in a U.S. Trade Representative.”

Froman has been involved in guiding trade policy from the White House for some time, often participating in press calls with Kirk on trade policy matters.

Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said, “Froman is well respected in town and particularly for the recognition of his close relationship with the President. That is always a very important element to be a successful USTR,” adding that the consensus is the job is his if he wants it.

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