May 3, 2013
When business leaders complain that President Barack Obama has been at best neglectful and at worst hostile toward the nation's job creators, they cite a long list of grievances.
On the list — not high, but on the list — is that when Obama assembled his first Cabinet, he passed over the business community and picked a lawyer and politician, Washington Gov. Gary Locke, to be secretary of commerce.
Two years later, Locke jumped at the chance to be ambassador to China. Obama's second commerce secretary, John Bryson, had the business pedigree, but he had to resign for health reasons last year, after just eight months on the job. Commerce secretary has been filled on an acting basis for nearly a year.
So the Department of Commerce has been ... star-crossed during the Obama administration.
That should change now. We're greatly encouraged by Obama's choice to be his third commerce secretary.
Yes, Penny Pritzker is a personal friend, campaign contributor and fundraiser for the president. She served as national co-chair of Obama for America 2012 and as national finance chair of his presidential campaign in 2008. She raised the cash that helped to put the president in office. That's often the kind of resume you see when the job at Commerce is filled as a political spoil.
But Pritzker has exceptionally strong credentials. She has the real-world executive experience and personal gravitas to be an outstanding representative for American business. She has a reputation for being candid. She could help Obama turn around his troubled relationship with the leaders of industry — if he listens to her.
In business circles around the world, the Pritzker name is golden. Patriarch A.N. Pritzker, son of immigrants, made a fortune investing in real estate and Chicago-area businesses. His son, Jay, expanded the family enterprise into the multibillion-dollar Marmon Group industrial conglomerate. He built Hyatt Hotels Corp. into a far-flung chain.
Penny Pritzker is the daughter of Jay's brother, Hyatt co-founder Donald. After earning a combined law and business degree, she held senior posts in the family's operations.
At Thursday's Rose Garden announcement, Obama noted it was Pritzker's 54th birthday and joked about the celebration in store for her on Capitol Hill: "For your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation," he cracked. "It's going to be great." The president has always done sarcasm well.
Pritzker will face intense scrutiny.
In 2008, amid speculation that Obama would tap her as commerce secretary, Pritzker withdrew from consideration. Her family at the time was undergoing a fractious breakup of its business interests. That is now in the past, but other questions loom over her nomination.
During the early 1990s, she chaired Superior Bank, a suburban Chicago lender her family co-owned that later collapsed amid accounting irregularities and subprime loans gone bad. Federal regulators seized it in 2001.
The Pritzkers and their co-owners settled with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for $460 million, without admitting liability. The FDIC also let the family share in part of a recovery the government obtained from the bank's auditor, Ernst & Young. Neither the federal insurance fund nor some depositors were ever made whole.
It was an unusual deal, and Pritzker no doubt will be asked about it.
Her nomination has outraged organized labor. The Hyatt chain, where Pritzker serves as a director, is a regular target of labor union protests. She drew the wrath of the Chicago Teachers Union when she served on the Chicago Board of Education.
She will undergo the grilling, and then she should be confirmed. Pritzker has the potential to be a transformative commerce secretary. American business needs a strong voice in the Obama White House. Pritzker would be taking over at a critical time. Free-trade talks are scheduled to kick off with Europe in a matter of weeks. Trade talks with Asia could heat up. The economy is recovering from its post-recession malaise. The opportunity exists for the Obama administration to significantly improve its record of supporting American business.
As a longtime friend of the president's, Pritzker has his trust. We hope, as commerce secretary, she has his ear.
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