President Barack Obama Thursday tapped longtime Democratic fundraiser and billionaire businesswoman Penny Pritzker to lead the Commerce Department and economic adviser Michael Froman as the U.S. Trade Representative in a Rose Garden ceremony Thursday morning.
Obama called Pritzker “one of our country’s most distinguished business leaders” and “an extraordinary civic leader” in Chicago. “She knows that what we can do is to give every business and every worker the best chance to succeed by making America a magnet for jobs.”
Pritzker, estimated by Forbes to have a net worth of $1.85 billion, has been a force in Chicago and national politics, and is close to both Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She is an heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, but the White House is touting her 25 years of business experience as well as her philanthropic efforts. She helped set up Skills for America’s Future, a group connecting community colleges and employers.
Pritzker nearly joined the Obama administration in the president’s first term and will have no shortage of questions from lawmakers. They could range from the Pritzker family’s role in a failed Illinois bank to what unions say is an anti-labor record at the Hyatt hotel chain.
Pritzker was the national finance chairwoman for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and was co-chairwoman of his 2012 reelection campaign. Pritzker’s financial support for the president has been substantial. In addition to being one of his most prominent donation bundlers, she wrote a $250,000 check to help pay for the president’s second inauguration, the Chicago Tribune reported last week.
Pritzker has served on the president’s jobs council as well as his economic recovery board, and has held numerous positions in philanthropic and public policy spheres.
While making the announcement, Obama noted Thursday was Pritzker’s birthday. “Happy birthday, Penny! For your birthday present you get to go through confirmation,” Obama joked, pausing for effect. “It’s going to be great.”
Rebecca Blank has been acting secretary of Commerce since June 2012, when John Bryson resigned for medical reasons.
An Insider for USTR
Froman already works as an assistant to the president and is deputy national security adviser for international economics. Obama praised him as “one of the world’s foremost experts on our global economy” and noted that they went to law school together.
“He was much smarter than me then, he continues to be smarter than me now,” Obama said. The president said Froman has been the driving force in organizing international trade summits and called him “an extraordinarily tough negotiator” who would fight for a level playing field.
The White House is pitching Froman as someone with strong negotiating skills who will get things done as trade representative, bolstering trade efforts that business groups complained were not a priority in Obama’s first term. Froman will face tough questioning from Republicans on the lack of new free trade agreements negotiated by Obama.
Froman negotiated the final details in the South Korea, Colombia and Panama trade agreements for the White House. And Obama has called for negotiating a major new trade pact with Europe, among other trade initiatives, so there will be no shortage of work for the trade representative.
The White House also credits him with setting up a new center to crack down on unfair trade practices and overseeing trade policy for the administration.
Froman also has strong business ties, having worked at Citigroup.
If confirmed, he’ll take charge of what the Obama administration has said will be an aggressive trade agenda in Obama’s second term. The president has called for negotiating a major new trade pact with Europe and the U.S. is negotiating a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with nearly a dozen other countries.
Froman would replace Ron Kirk, who left the position in March.
Kate Ackley contributed to this report.