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Obama taps GE chief Immelt for jobs role, continuing outreach to big business
State of the Union
The appointment of Immelt and the creation by executive order of the new panel - called the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness - comes days before Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a far more hostile Congress than he has encountered in the past.
Administration aides say Obama is expected to focus his remarks on reducing unemployment. With little prospect of new stimulus spending, analysts and economists say Obama may highlight other areas that would improve American competitiveness. These could include reducing corporate taxes and loopholes, investments in energy and transportation, and urging the passage of new trade deals, such as those with South Korea and Panama, that could make it easier for American companies to sell into foreign markets.
Immelt's role as head of the new jobs council will be to reach beyond its membership to develop ideas for "investing in innovation and providing companies with the tools they need to compete" and create jobs, Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett said in an interview.
"We have to be creative," she said. "For example, do we need to do something to our tax structure to make U.S. companies more competitive? That's a conversation the president has already had with Immelt."
The panel replaces a previous group of outsiders who served as economic advisers in the first two years of the administration. This earlier group, led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, met rarely with the president, and Volcker at times felt he was being excluded. Still, his vision for Wall Street of limiting speculative trading by banks prevailed in the landmark legislation overhauling financial regulations. Administration officials did not say which other members of the panel would be leaving.
Immelt, a self-described Republican whose company is spending more than $10 million supporting events commemorating the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, has grown closer with Obama in the past few years. Immelt appeared with him in November at a summit in India - where GE announced a major new contract to sell steam turbines - and participated in meetings this week during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao.
"He understands what it takes for America to compete in the global economy," Obama said Friday.
In a call Immelt held with investors Friday to discuss GE's fourth-quarter results, he said GE remains his "passion."
"I'm focused on the company," he said, "but you know, at the same time, I'm honored to be able to work on something that has importance in a broader economic context."
Some critics said Immelt, who has led GE for a decade after replacing the company's legendary chief Jack Welch, was the wrong man for the job.
GE, a maker of equipment for jet airplanes, medical technology and many other industrial products, has steadily reduced its domestic work force over the years. When Immelt took over, GE had a global head count of 313,000, with 54 percent in the United States. Now it has a global head count of 304,000, with 134,000 in the United States.
"GE has been run as a globalized enterprise for a generation, and consequently you can't really say what's good for GE is good for the United States," said Damon Silvers, associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would like to see Immelt's appointment lead him to change GE's focus. "I hope he changes his mind and focuses on rebuilding the manufacturing sector here in the United States, not in China, and in the process creates millions of good-paying jobs," Sanders said in a statement.
A GE spokesman said the reduced job force in the United States reflects the company's sale of some subsidiaries. GE also has touted the recent shift of several thousand jobs to the United States from overseas.
GE has benefited from U.S. government policy in several ways. GE Capital, a corporate subsidiary that lost billions on bad loans during the recession, received taxpayer protection during the financial crisis.
Goldfarb reported from Washington and Bacon from Schenectady. Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.