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Obama nominates major fundraiser to run Commerce Department

At the White House Thursday, President Obama announced that he is nominating Chicago real estate investor Penny Pritzker to head the Commerce Department. 

President Obama nominates Penny Pritzker to run the Commerce Department and Mike Froman, a top economic adviser, as the next U.S. Trade Representative.

 “Penny is one of our country’s most distinguished business leaders—she’s got more than 25 years of management experience in industries including real estate, finance, and hospitality,” Obama said. “She’s built companies from ground up and she knows from experience that no government program alone can take the place of a great entrepreneur.”

Noting that Thursday is Pritzker’s birthday, Obama joked, “For your birthday present, you get to go through (Senate) confirmation.”

Obama also announced that he is nominating Mike Froman to be the chief U.S. trade negotiator. Froman was a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama and the president said “he was much smarter than me then – he continues to be smarter than me now.”

Froman is now Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs. He served in the Clinton administration as Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's chief of staff and later worked with Rubin at Citigroup.

The Commerce Department has been without a secretary since John Bryson resigned nearly a year ago and has been run by Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank, an economist and former university professor.

Pritzker was the national co-chair of the Obama campaign last year and was National Finance Chair of the 2008 Obama for president campaign. She has served on Obama’s Council for Jobs and Competitiveness and on his Economic Recovery Advisory Board.  She also is on the board of Hyatt Hotels Corporation. She's past chairman of TransUnion, a financial services information company.

Pritzker has played a crucial role in Obama’s career.

Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 2, 2013, where he announced he will nominate Penny Pritzker, as Commerce Secretary.

When he was struggling in 2004 to raise money for a Senate campaign, Obama was able to win over Pritzker, the first of the big fundraisers for his Senate bid. David Mendell wrote in his book, “From Promise to Power,” “With Penny Pritzker on board, other influential Chicago-based Democrats and philanthropists soon followed suit.” 

Obama’s Senate victory party was held at the Chicago Hyatt Regency, owned by the Pritzker family. If confirmed by the Senate, Pritzker would be the wealthiest Cabinet member, with a net worth of $1.85 billion.

Presidents have often appointed their political operatives and allies to the job: George W. Bush named his friend Texas oil man Don Evans to the position, Bill Clinton appointed campaign aide Mickey Kantor and former Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown to the post, while Franklin Roosevelt installed his chief political operative Harry Hopkins as Commerce secretary.

The Commerce Department, with 45,000 employees and an annual budget of about $8 billion, has a broad and somewhat random portfolio including one of the federal government’s economic data collection agencies, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, as well as the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration – which includes the National Weather Service -- the Bureau of the Census, and other agencies.

NBC News Deputy Political Editor Domenico Montanaro contributed to this story

 

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