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Obama Taps Billionaire to Head Commerce Dept., Aide as Trade Rep

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama on Thursday nominated billionaire campaign fundraiser Penny Pritzker to head the Commerce Department and trusted, longtime economic aide Michael Froman as the next U.S. trade representative, in a ceremony at the White House.

Pritzker, who is the chairman and CEO of PSP Capital Partners and Pritzker Realty Group in Chicago, ranks among the wealthiest and most powerful women in America, according to Forbes magazine. She is a noted philanthropist and businesswoman, serving on the board of Hyatt Hotels, which was co-founded by her father.

She has been a loyal political supporter of Obama, largely credited with orchestrating his record-smashing $750 million fundraising haul in 2008 as the campaign’s national finance chair. During the 2012 campaign, Pritzker took a slightly less prominent role, but ranked among Obama’s top bundlers, raking in millions of dollars and hosting fundraisers at her Chicago home.

After the first presidential campaign, Pritzker was rumored to be interested in the Commerce Department post, but a nomination never materialized. She ultimately settled for a seat on Obama’s Jobs Council and has flown with the president on Air Force One.

“Penny is one of our country’s most distinguished business leaders,” said President Obama in a ceremony Thursday morning at the White House. “She’s got more than 25 years of management experience and industries, including real estate, finance and hospitality. 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. She knows that what we can do is to give every business and every worker the best possible chance to succeed by making America a magnet for good jobs.”

He noted his personal closeness to Pritzker, mentioning that he has watched her children grow up and wishing her Happy Birthday.

“So for your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation,” he said to laughs. “It’s going to be great,” he added, with probably more than a hint of irony.

Republicans have criticized Pritzker for her family’s role in a 2001 Chicago bank collapse. And she could face scrutiny over Caribbean tax shelters utilized by family members. On the left, there could be frustration about Pritzker’s involvement with Hyatt, which has been in conflict with labor unions.

If confirmed by the Senate, she will become the fourth woman on Obama’s second-term cabinet, succeeding former Secretary John Bryson, who resigned last year citing health concerns after a traffic accident.

Froman, the current deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, would succeed outgoing U.S. Trade Rep Ron Kirk.

The White House credits Froman with playing a key role in finalizing trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama and leading negotiations over a new so-called Trans-Pacific partnership aimed at boosting U.S. exports to Asia.

Obama called him “one of the world’s foremost experts on our global economy,” adding, “I’m not surprised, by the way, because we went to law school together. He was much smarter than me then; he continues to be smarter than me now.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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