President Obama on Thursday nominated longtime fundraiser and hotel magnate Penny Pritzker as commerce secretary and veteran aide Michael Froman as the U.S. trade representative.
He made the announcement before embarking on a three-day economic and security trip to Mexico and Costa Rica.
If confirmed, Pritzker, an investor and daughter of the co-founder of the Hyatt hotel chain, would be the richest secretary in Obama’s Cabinet and potentially the wealthiest Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. She has a net worth of $1.85 billion, according to Forbes magazine, making her the 277th richest person on the Forbes 400 list.
The chief executive of PSP Capital Partners and its affiliate, Pritzker Realty Group, Pritzker has been a major presence in Chicago business and philanthropic circles. She was national finance chairman of Obama’s 2008 campaign and co-chairman of his 2012 reelection campaign.
The two nominations make it unlikely that Obama will move ahead with his plan to combine the government’s trade, investment and commerce functions into one department. The proposal, which he announced in January 2012 and included in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal, would combine the elements of several agencies including commerce, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Small Business Administration.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) said in a statement Thursday that he and other Republicans are “still waiting” to reorganize the government. “I’m disappointed the president has not proposed a detailed plan, but if he does, a restructuring could still happen.”
After Obama was elected in 2008, Pritzker was considered a front-runner for the commerce position. But she withdrew from consideration, reportedly because of potential controversy over her net worth and complex business relationships.
In announcing the nomination on Thursday, Obama called Pritzker “one of the country’s most distinguished business leaders,” and cited her many years of experience in industries including real estate, hospitality, senior living and financial services.
“She’s built companies from the ground up. She knows from experience that no government program alone can take the place of a great entrepreneur,” Obama said. “And Penny understands that just as great companies strengthen the community around them, strong communities and skilled workers also help companies thrive.”
Pritzker has served on the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and helped develop Skills for America’s Future, which the White House described as “an innovative program that brings together businesses, community colleges and others to prepare workers for 21st century jobs and connects them with employment.”
Pritzker attended Harvard University and received law and business degrees from Stanford.
Froman, Obama’s nominee for U.S. trade representative, is the deputy national security adviser for international economics. Previously at the investment bank Citigroup, he has been an aggressive free-trade advocate inside the White House but also a major supporter of policies to ensure that Americans have equal access to markets compared with workers from other countries.
“He has won the respect of our trading partners around the world,” Obama said. “He has also won a reputation as being an extraordinarily tough negotiator while doing it. He does not rest until he’s delivered the best possible deal for American businesses and American workers.”
Noting that Froman was a classmate of his at Harvard Law School, the president quipped: “He was much smarter than me then. He continues to be smarter than me now.”
Froman was the lead White House adviser on free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, the trade centerpieces of Obama’s first term. He also has been the president’s main emissary at major economic summits and has overseen economic engagement with all parts of the world, including China and the European Union. He will maintain a significant White House presence in his new role, the official said.
Froman served in the Clinton administration and in the Treasury Department. He attended Princeton, and in addition to his law degree from Harvard, he received a doctorate from Oxford.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.