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As President Obama mulls over the appointments for his second term cabinet, there’s one job that deserves a much higher priority than it’s had in the recent past: the Commerce Secretary. Commerce secretaries have normally been almost an afterthought in presidential appointments, and rarely leave a lasting mark. But there is no position in the government that plays a bigger role in what the president has identified as his top second-term goal: reviving a stronger middle class in the United States.
The Commerce Department has primary responsibility on a host of issues central to the capacity of the U.S. economy to generate better, higher-paying jobs for more people. These include attracting foreign investment, promoting U.S. exports, supporting research and development, and enforcing trade laws and trade agreements. The Commerce Secretary will also be a key player in several second-term administration priorities, including a corporate tax overhaul and immigration reform. And President Obama has suggested he wants to revive his proposal to merge the various trade and commercial agencies into a single new department, most likely under the leadership of the next Commerce secretary
In Obama’s first term, however, there was no senior post that was more mishandled by the White House. Obama initially nominated then Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican of no noteworthy legislative accomplishments, in an apparent effort to show his bipartisan bona fides. His staff somehow overlooked that Senator Gregg had been among those Republicans who actually favored eliminating the Commerce Department entirely. Senator Gregg failed to reciprocate the president’s affections, withdrawing from the nomination after just ten days. “We regret that he has had a change of heart,” said the White House press secretary.
The Plan B choice of former Washington State governor Gary Locke worked out much better – so much, unfortunately for the department, that he was promoted after two years and became U.S. ambassador to China. Plan C, former Edison International chief executive John Bryson, was just getting the hang of the job when he was forced to step down for medical reasons after suffering a seizure while driving. While Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank, a highly respected labor economist, has filled in ably, the Commerce Department suffered a serious leadership vacuum for much of President Obama’s first term.
That needs to change in the second term. The Obama administration already has something of a blueprint for the Commerce Department’s second-term agenda – the reports of the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a task force of business, labor and academic leaders that met regularly with Obama and other senior officials during the first term. The Council developed or endorsed a range of valuable proposals that could be championed by a new Commerce Secretary, including a National Investment Initiative to increase foreign and domestic investment, greater support for start-up businesses, and improved job skills training.
Who should do the job? Top of the list would be Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, one of America’s iconic companies, who chaired the Jobs Council. [Full disclosure: my Dad worked in GE’s research lab in Schenectady many, many years ago.] An Immelt appointment would immediately vault Commerce into the first tier of Cabinet agencies, a long overdue promotion. The Jobs Council included several other chief executives whose nomination would make a similar statement, including Paul Otellini of Intel and Ursula Burns of Xerox, who is currently vice-chair of the President's Export Council, which advises Commerce and other agencies on U.S. trade priorities.
Whomever the president picks, he should make it clear that he is looking for the new secretary to be a committed member of his inner economic team, one who is prepared to serve out the full term. Manufacturing, innovation, exports, and investment are all at the heart of the administration’s economic agenda, and they need a strong champion. Strengthening the competitiveness of U.S. business and the attractiveness of the United States as a location for high-paying jobs requires the same steady, patient attention that U.S. diplomacy traditionally gets from a powerful Secretary of State, and tax and currency policies get from a powerful Secretary of the Treasury. It is time for a Secretary of Commerce who can stand alongside.