WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Thursday chose two old friends with corporate executive experience for top posts on his economic team, naming longtime fundraiser Penny Pritzker as Commerce secretary and adviser Michael Froman as U.S. Trade Representative.
Pritzker, a Hyatt hotel heiress, businesswoman and philanthropist, is Obama's pick to fill a Cabinet post that has been vacant since former Secretary John Bryson resigned last summer, after he said he suffered a seizure that led to a series of traffic collisions.
Froman is one of Obama's law school classmates and senior economic advisers who previously worked as an executive at Citigroup. The Cabinet-level trade representative performs as the administration's top adviser and negotiator on international trade. If confirmed by the Senate, Froman would replace Ron Kirk, a former Dallas mayor who stepped down as trade representative in February after serving in the post throughout Obama's first term.
Obama made the nominations in the White House Rose Garden just before departing for Mexico. He said the two will help fulfill his top priority to grow the economy and create middle class jobs, in part by opening new markets overseas to sell U.S. products.
"They've got a lot of work to do, and I intend to work them to the bone as soon as they're official," Obama said to laughter from a crowd that included the nominees' families and administration staff.
If she is confirmed by the Senate, Pritzker would become the fourth woman serving as secretary in Obama's current Cabinet. She also would be the wealthiest in the Cabinet by far, with Forbes estimating her net worth at $1.85 billion and ranking her as the 277th richest American.
Pritzker is a lifelong Chicagoan who has known Obama since the 1990s and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for both of his presidential campaigns. She was his finance chairwoman in 2008, served as co-chair of Obama for America 2012 and gave $250,000 to help put on his inaugural festivities in January.
Obama selected her for his 16-member Presidential Economic Recovery Advisory Board in 2009. When that board expired, Obama included her in his 26-member Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
Pritzker has led several companies and currently serves as chair of investment firms Pritzker Realty Group and Artemis Real Estate Partners. She's also on the board of the Hyatt Hotels Corp., the chain co-founded by her father.
Pritzker has donated generously to education and the arts and resigned from the Chicago Board of Education in March as she was being vetted for the Commerce nomination.
"She knows from experience that no government program alone can take the place of a great entrepreneur," Obama said. He also noted he was nominating her on her 54th birthday and joked, "For your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation. It's going to be great."
Sure to come up is the Pritzker family's co-ownership of Superior Bank, a Chicago-area thrift that failed in July 2001 after losing millions on risky, high-rate mortgage loans to borrowers with bad credit. With about $1.7 billion in assets, it was at the time the largest insured U.S. financial institution to fail since 1992 and cost the deposit insurance fund $286.3 million.
Federal regulators blamed risky business strategies by Superior's management for the collapse, but they also cited failures on the part of its auditor Ernst & Young.
The Pritzker family and its partner in Superior agreed to pay $460 million without admitting any liability in a settlement with the regulators. In exchange, the owners were allowed to receive 25 percent of any money the government recovered from Ernst & Young, which came to about $31 million.
Froman, Obama's deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, is steeped in the issues confronting the trade representative.
He has been Obama's main representative at international economic summits such as the meetings of the Group of Eight and Group of 20. He is responsible for coordinating White House policy on international trade, investments, energy, climate and development.
Obama credited Froman with helping negotiate trade agreements for South Korea, Colombia and Panama that the president said have supported tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.
"He has also won a reputation as being an extraordinarily tough negotiator while doing it," Obama said. "He does not rest until he's delivered the best possible deal for American businesses and American workers. He's fought to make sure that countries that break the rules are held accountable."
Froman served during President Bill Clinton's administration as chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin. He also worked as deputy assistant secretary for Eurasia and the Middle East and did a White House stint similar to his current job under Obama.
Before joining the Obama economic and national security teams he worked in various capacities at Citigroup, including as managing partner of the Wall Street bank. He also has been a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
Among the top ongoing trade issues are negotiations over the Trans-Pacific partnership, an Asia-Pacific trading bloc that is key to Obama's efforts to boost exports to Asia. Members include the U.S., Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Vietnam, Chile, New Zealand, Brunei, Singapore and Peru. Last month, the U.S. approved Japan's entry into negotiations on the trading bloc.