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Obama Picks Nominees for Commerce Dept. and Trade Representative

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Reposted from The New York Times

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Obama Picks Nominees for Commerce Dept. and Trade Representative

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Jackie Calmes | April 2, 2013 | NY Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama rounded out his second-term cabinet choices on Thursday, nominating Penny Pritzker, his longtime financial backer and an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, to be commerce secretary, and Michael Froman, a law school friend and White House adviser on international economics, as trade representative.

Mr. Obama introduced his two friends in a Rose Garden announcement just before departing for a three-day trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, along with Mr. Froman. With Mr. Obama’s nomination on Monday of Anthony R. Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., to be transportation secretary, he has now completed his selections for a cabinet depleted by departures after his first term.

Several nominees, including the new ones, still need Senate confirmation. Republicans will closely scrutinize Ms. Pritzker’s financial record, as Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa made plain in a statement after the announcement.

“Every nominee’s offshore tax avoidance activities should be examined as part of the nomination process,” he said, suggesting that Ms. Pritzker is “associated with the kind of tax avoidance activity that the president dismisses as fat cat shenanigans for others.”

Ms. Pritzker, a longtime Chicago donor and fund-raiser for Mr. Obama, had been expected to be his pick for the long-vacant Commerce Department post, but vetting of her substantial financial assets and ties delayed a formal announcement, administration aides have said. She was a leading candidate for commerce secretary after Mr. Obama’s election in 2008, but withdrew from contention amid the public scrutiny at the time.

On Thursday the president signaled confidence that Ms. Pritzker would be confirmed by joking about it. Noting that Ms. Pritzker’s nomination coincided with her 54th birthday, he quipped, “For your birthday present you get to go through confirmation.” After a comedic pause, he added with a chuckle, “It’s going to be great.”

With Ms. Pritzker, Mr. Obama would bring a woman and a voice for business interests into a cabinet that has been criticized in the past as having too few of either. Even so, the president of the National Organization for Women, Terry O’Neill, issued a statement immediately after the announcement saying that “the numbers are good, but not great,” since women are 51 percent of the population but about one-third of the cabinet.

“NOW is particularly concerned that the main group of advisers who have the president’s ear not just on occasion, but three, four, five times a day, is still overwhelmingly male,” she added.

Ms. Pritzker, a longtime business and civic leader in Chicago, would head perhaps the most eclectic department in the government, with wide-ranging responsibility that includes federal business programs, oceans policy, weather forecasting and travel and tourism. In Democratic and Republican administrations, the commerce secretary is often best known as a president’s emissary to the business community and political donors.

The commerce post had been vacant for nearly a year, since the businessman John E. Bryson resigned for medical reasons in June; his deputy, Rebecca M. Blank, has been acting secretary since then. Ms. Blank, an academic, is leaving to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Ms. Pritzker is chairwoman and chief executive of PSP Capital Partners and its affiliate, Pritzker Realty Group, and chairwoman of Artemis Real Estate Partners. During Mr. Obama’s first term, she served on his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and on his Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Mr. Obama credited her on Thursday as “the driving force” behind his Skills for America’s Future initiative to connect businesses and community colleges to develop a work force with the skills employers need.

Mr. Froman, who is 50, has served in the White House as the deputy national security adviser for international economics since Mr. Obama first took office. Although the post was not a cabinet position, Mr. Froman had proximity to the president and a portfolio thicker than that of the cabinet-rank trade representative, encompassing not only trade but also international development and climate change issues.

Mr. Froman had planned to keep his White House post in the second term, and Mr. Obama initially intended to nominate Jeffrey D. Zients, a businessman who had been the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, to be trade representative. But opposition to Mr. Zients from Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which would handle his nomination, scuttled it. Mr. Baucus objected to Mr. Zients’s oversight of a government-reorganization study that recommended changes that would have affected the committee’s jurisdiction, according to administration and Congressional aides.

Mr. Froman’s inclusion with Mr. Obama for the trip to Mexico and Costa Rica reflects his current leading role in international economic affairs. He has been the president’s “sherpa,” making preparations for past and coming global economic summit meetings. He also oversees economic relations with Europe, Japan and the developing BRIC bloc — Brazil, Russia, India and China — and development policies for Africa and the Middle East.

Administration officials said Mr. Froman would retain some of those responsibilities.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama gave Mr. Froman credit, along with the man he would succeed as trade representative, Ron Kirk, for finishing free trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, all of which were begun in the Bush administration. The foremost issues for the new trade representative will be to negotiate trade liberalization deals with Europe and the Pacific Rim region.

“He has won the respect of our trading partners around the world,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Froman. “He has also won a reputation as being an extraordinarily tough negotiator while doing it.”

Labor groups generally have had good if occasionally testy relations with Mr. Froman, but a liberal group, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, assailed his “corporate agenda.” Business groups issued statements praising him and Ms. Pritzker.

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