3 Reasons Why President Obama Is Nominating Penny Pritzker as Commerce Secretary

Here's why the president tapped the wealthy heiress to join his economic team.

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President Obama nominated Penny Pritzker on Thursday to be the next Commerce Secretary. The seat has been filled by Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank since last summer, when John Bryson resigned, citing health concerns.

"Penny is one of our country's most distinguished business leaders," Obama said on Thursday, speaking from the Rose Garden. "She knows that what we can do is to give every business and ever worker the best possible chance to succeed by making America a magnet for good jobs."

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Pritzker has an impressive business resume and pedigree alike: she is the CEO of investment firm PSP Capital Partners and Pritzker Realty Group, and is also an heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune. Here's why the president chose this real estate magnate and one-percenter to be a top economic official:

1) She speaks the language of business.

If confirmed, Pritzker would be the second CEO to be named to Obama's second-term cabinet, after REI's Sally Jewell, who was confirmed in April. In his Thursday remarks, Obama telegraphed a decidedly laissez faire, business-friendly message: "She knows from experience that no government program can take the place of a great entrepreneur."

True, it's not uncommon to name a CEO to head up Commerce — former Secretary Bryson was CEO of utility holding company Edison International. In addition, it's important for any president to have a healthy relationship with business, says one former Commerce official.

"I think it's always important that a president and big business have open channels to talk to each other. What each does affects the other and their success," says Robert Shapiro, chairman and chief executive of consulting firm Sonecon and a former Undersecretary of Commerce.

 

Still, looming political realities make it particularly important that the president have officials on call who can reach out to big business.

"What we're entering now is the phase of the implementation of the health care reforms, and much of that will be done by business. So I think at this time there are very good reasons to have as open lines of communication as possible with big business," says Shapiro. "Pritzker helps him with that."

2) She's close to him already.

Pritzker is a longtime Obama fundraiser, so she helped him get into the Oval Office in the first place. But she has also taken on a high-ranking economic post already, as a member of the president's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a group of economic and business leaders which was created during the economic crisis to help come up with ways to boost the economy. Because of her closeness to the president, Pritzker could find it easy to work with him and carry out his agenda.

3) She's a she.

This is not to say that Obama sought out his own binders full of women. While Pritzker is highly qualified for this post, she has the added benefit of quelling concerns about the lack of diversity among the president's top advisors. Yet adding her to the mix of top officials also helps the president with concerns about the status of women within the White House.

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The Obama administration has fought a "boys' club" perception from the beginning, and concerns have lingered: at the start of the year, CNN worried that the president's cabinet would be largely male. By adding another woman to the top ranks of the executive branch, the president may be able to quell some of those concerns.

Though she may lighten the president's load, Pritzker comes with her own baggage. She may cause friction between the administration and labor; AFL-CIO last year joined in a boycott of Hyatt Hotels, citing mistreatment of workers. Furthermore, Pritzker was on the board of Superior Bank, a Chicago-based bank that issued subprime loans before the financial crisis. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2008, Pritzker maintained a "leadership role" at the bank even after she stepped down as chairwoman in 1994. As of 2008, the Sun-Times counted at least 1,400 customers who were still owed money after the bank's failure.