Obama's starting point was 2009 exports of $1.57 trillion. Since then, they've climbed to a record $2.19 trillion in 2012 â¿¿ about 48 percent toward his goal of some $3.14 trillion a year by the start of 2015.

But 2012 exports, while a record, grew just 5.5 percent from those in 2011, down from a 15.9 percent surge from 2010 to 2011. The rate would have to pick up sharply again this year and next to meet Obama's target.

"Some of the headwinds we faced last year have started to improve," said Chad Moutay, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers. "And I think energy is a game-changer. We definitely have increased the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing."

U.S. manufacturers posted a fourth consecutive month of expansion in March. While the rate was a bit below February's gain, the overall trend is still up.

Some critics argue that Obama set the bar artificially low by using recessionary 2009 numbers as his starting point.

Alan Tonelson, an official with the U.S. Business and Industry Council, said Obama also "has the wrong goal" by focusing on exports and not the other part of the trade equation: still-huge import levels and resulting trade deficits.

The U.S. imported $540.4 billion more in goods and services last year than it exported, down only slightly from the $559.9 billion trade deficit in 2011.

"We racked up a pretty impressive export performance over the last few years. But the main reason that we may not reach the Obama doubling-export goal is the world economy is slowing down," said Tonelson, whose organization represents nearly 2,000 mainly family-owned U.S. manufacturing companies.

Obama shrugs off such skepticism, suggesting the recent manufacturing gains speak for themselves.

"What's happening here is happening all around the country," the president said during a recent visit to a flourishing engine-part factory in Ashville, N.C. "Just as it's becoming more and more expensive to do business in places like China, America is getting more competitive."

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