President Barack Obama may look to the business community for his next secretary of Commerce with former Pfizer Inc. (PFE) Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Kindler and Google Inc. (GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt among potential candidates, according to a person familiar with the process.
Ron Kirk, who has had a leading role in pressing the administration’s trade agenda as U.S. trade representative, also is a contender for the job, according to another person. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because the search is in preliminary stages.
The post is coming open because the president said yesterday that he is nominating the current secretary, Gary Locke, to be the U.S. ambassador to China. Locke would replace Jon Huntsman, whose resignation is effective April 30.
Administration officials yesterday refused to comment on a possible successor to Locke.
“The president will consider a range of qualified candidates, but we are at a very early stage in the process and no decisions have been made,” said Jen Psaki, an administration spokeswoman.
As top jobs have opened up in the second half of his term, Obama has considered candidates from outside politics and academia. His new chief of staff, William Daley, was an executive at JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) before joining the administration in January.
Obama’s aides have been seeking to counter criticism from some corporate leaders over administration policies on regulation and health care. On Dec. 15, after a 4 1/2-hour meeting with 20 company executives, Obama said they were making “good progress” on establishing closer cooperation between government and business.
Presidents often have looked to the ranks of corporate executives for the Commerce Department post. Daley held the job in President Bill Clinton’s administration. Obama’s White House predecessor, George W. Bush, had as his Commerce secretaries Carlos Gutierrez, the former CEO of Kellogg Co., and Donald Evans, former CEO of oil exploration company Tom Brown Inc.
With an executive “you get the management experience, and you get an understanding of a large complex organization that is active globally,” said Meredith Broadbent, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Still, an inside candidate has advantages, she said.
“Kirk would bring an understanding of the U.S. negotiating agenda and what needs to be accomplished in Geneva in the Doha rounds and in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations,” Broadbent said.
A nominee from the business community likely would face scrutiny about corporate practices during Senate confirmation hearings, possibly drawing out the process. Kirk, by contrast, has already been vetted by the administration and was confirmed by the Senate for his current job.
Kirk, 54, a former Dallas mayor and partner at the Houston- based law firm Vinson & Elkins LLP, declined to comment on his prospects of getting the Commerce job. “I just don’t want to get involved with hypotheticals,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “I am privileged to serve the president as his trade ambassador.”
Kindler didn’t return two messages left at his home. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.
The next Commerce secretary will have a significant role in Obama’s National Export Initiative to double U.S. exports to $3.1 trillion within five years. In announcing Locke’s nomination as the top U.S. diplomat in China, Obama signaled his priorities for the job Locke is leaving.
“He’s overseen an increase in American exports, and particularly exports to China,” Obama said of Locke at the White House. He also “earned the trust of business leaders across America.”
Kindler, 55, was CEO of New York-based Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, for four years before stepping down in December. He also was part of a presidential advisory board on increasing U.S. exports that Obama named last July.
Schmidt, 55, announced in January that he plans to step down as Google CEO in April and become executive chairman. He led the Mountain View, California-based company for 10 years.
Schmidt gave $25,000 to Obama’s inaugural committee, and he has regularly consulted with the president on economic matters. That includes a December meeting with 20 executives in Washington and a smaller dinner with a dozen leaders of the technology industry last month at the California home of venture capitalist John Doerr.
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