President Barack Obama on Thursday chose two old friends with corporate executive experience for top posts on his economic team, naming longtime fundraiser Penny Pritzker as Commerce secretary and adviser Michael Froman as U.S. Trade Representative.
Pritzker, a Hyatt hotel heiress, businesswoman and philanthropist, is Obama’s pick to fill a Cabinet post that has been vacant since former Secretary John Bryson resigned last summer after he suffered a seizure that led to a series of traffic collisions.
Froman is one of Obama’s law school classmates and senior economic advisers who previously worked as an executive at Citigroup. The Cabinet-level trade representative performs as the administration’s top adviser and negotiator on international trade. If confirmed by the Senate, Froman would replace Ron Kirk, a former Dallas mayor who stepped down as trade representative in February after serving in the post throughout Obama’s first term.
Obama made the nominations in the White House Rose Garden just before departing for Mexico. He said the two will help fulfill his top priority to grow the economy and create middle class jobs, in part by opening new markets overseas to sell U.S. products.
“They’ve got a lot of work to do, and I intend to work them to the bone as soon as they’re official,” Obama said to laughter from a crowd that included the nominees’ families and administration staff.
If she is confirmed by the Senate, Pritzker would become the fourth woman serving as secretary in Obama’s current Cabinet.
Pritzker is a lifelong Chicagoan who has known Obama since the 1990s and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for both of his presidential campaigns. She was his finance chairwoman in 2008, served as co-chair of Obama for America 2012 and gave $250,000 to help put on his inaugural festivities in January.
Sure to come up in confirmation hearings is the Pritzker family’s co-ownership of Superior Bank, a Chicago-area thrift that failed in July 2001 after losing millions on risky, high-rate mortgage loans to borrowers with bad credit. With about $1.7 billion in assets, it was at the time the largest insured U.S. financial institution to fail since 1992 and cost the deposit insurance fund $286.3 million.
Federal regulators blamed risky business strategies by Superior’s management for the collapse, but they also cited failures on the part of its auditor Ernst & Young.
The Pritzker family and its partner in Superior agreed to pay $460 million without admitting any liability in a settlement with the regulators.
Froman, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, is steeped in the issues confronting the trade representative.
He has been Obama’s main representative at international economic summits such as the meetings of the Group of Eight and Group of 20. He is responsible for coordinating White House policy on international trade, investments, energy, climate and development.
Obama credited Froman with helping negotiate trade agreements for South Korea, Colombia and Panama that the president said have supported tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.
“He has also won a reputation as being an extraordinarily tough negotiator while doing it,” Obama said. “He does not rest until he’s delivered the best possible deal for American businesses and American workers. He’s fought to make sure that countries that break the rules are held accountable.”
Born: May 2, 1959, Chicago
Education: B.A. in economics, Harvard University, 1981; JD/MBA, Stanford University, 1984
Career: Has led several companies; has served in chief fundraising and advisory roles for President Obama; currently serves as chair of investment firms Pritzker Realty Group and Artemis Real Estate Partners. Also on the board of the Hyatt Hotels Corp., the chain co-founded by her father, Donald N. Pritzker.
Family: Husband, Bryan Traubert; two children, Rose and Donald.
Notable: Forbes estimates her net worth at $1.85 billion and ranks her as the 277th richest American.
Born: Aug. 20, 1962, California
Education: Princeton University, 1985; Ph.D., Oxford University; J.D., Harvard Law School
Career: Served as managing director at Citigroup before joining Obama administration. Currently serves as Obama’s deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs
Family: Wife, Nancy; two children, Benjamin and Sarah. Son, Jacob, died in 2009 at age 10 from rare form of brain cancer.
Notable: President Obama’s classmate and associate at Harvard.