President Obama on Tuesday nominated former electric utility executive John E. Bryson as his next Commerce secretary, a relatively low-profile choice that could nevertheless intensify a clash in Washington over free trade and workers who see their jobs sent overseas.
Bryson would burnish Obama’s business credentials as the president is seeking the private sector’s support for his plan to push exports by U.S. companies and investments in alternative energy to help boost the economy.
Bryson spent nearly two decades as the head of the largest utility in North America, Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison, and today serves as a senior adviser to the private-equity giant Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts. He also is a director of Boeing and Walt Disney, a former energy regulator in California and a noted environmentalist who co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“That’s the expertise that will help us create new jobs and make America more competitive in the global economy,” Obama said during the announcement at the White House. The president stood between a smiling Bryson and Gary Locke, the current Commerce secretary who is becoming ambassador to China.
Locke, former governor of Washington state, served two years as commerce secretary. He oversaw the 2010 Census, which upon completion came in under budget and with relatively few management concerns.
Senate Republicans immediately vowed Tuesday to block the nomination in a dispute with Obama and Senate Democrats over outstanding free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
Republicans wants Obama to submit the three agreements for Senate ratification. He is unwilling to do so unless the Senate also supports expanding a job assistance program for workers whose jobs are moving overseas. The program helps workers with health insurance and job searches. Republicans oppose its expansion.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that “we think that it would be folly to hold up a nomination so important as the commerce secretary for any reason.”
Corporate America and environmental advocates supported Bryson’s nomination.
“With his extensive knowledge of the private sector and years of experience successfully running a major company, we hope Mr. Bryson will be a strong voice for American businesses,” said Thomas J. Donohue, chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Araceli Ruano, senior vice president and California director of the Center for American Progress, said Bryson is held in high esteem on the West Coast.
“His service on boards related to everything from foreign affairs to underprivileged youth has not only made him one of the brightest stars in civil society but will serve him well as Secretary of Commerce,” Ruano said.
But others questioned whether Bryson’s activism could harm the economy. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla), a skeptic of climate change, vowed to block Bryson’s nomination because he he founded a “radical environmental organization.”
Obama has been aggressively courting corporate America over the past year, naming former commerce secretary and J.P. Morgan banker William Daley as his chief of staff and General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt to lead his outside economic advisory council.
Obama was said to have also considered Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Ron Kirk, the U.S. Trade Representative, for the secretary’s post.
Bryson could also lend a hand in furthering Obama’s new energy agenda, which includes rolling back tax subsidies for oil and energy companies and investing in alternative forms of energy.
Bryson, an advocate of nuclear energy, has served on the board of the industry’s policy group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. Southern California Edison operates the San Onofre nuclear plant in San Diego.
His resume also includes serving as president of the Public Policy Institute of California and chairing the boards of BrightSource Energy and the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. He is a trustee of California Institute of Technology.