CHICAGO — Completing his Cabinet a month before taking office, President-elect Barack Obama named officials to oversee transportation, labor, trade and small-business policy Friday but warned that economic recovery won’t be nearly as swift.
“It will take longer than any of us would like — years, not months. It will get worse before it gets better. But it will get better if we are willing to act boldly and swiftly,” Obama said — and he promised to do just that.
Among the selections he announced Friday, Obama named venture capitalist Karen G. Mills of Brunswick, Maine, to lead the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Mills is a founding partner of the New York-based equity firm Solera Capital and she chairs Maine Gov. John Baldacci’s Council on Competitiveness and the Economy. In 2006, she led the successful referendum campaign for a $50 million research and development bond.
In announcing his selection of Mills, Obama said the nation must strengthen small businesses to strengthen its economy, and he could think of no one better to lead the effort.
“With Karen at the helm, America’s small businesses will have a partner in Washington, helping them create jobs and spur growth in communities across this country,” Obama said. “With a background in the private sector and experience helping Maine’s governor promote growth across the state, I am confident that Karen will lead an SBA that will not only help small-business owners realize their dreams, but help our nation rebuild our economy.”
In accepting the appointment, which must be confirmed by the Senate, Mills said, “Small business is at the heart of the American economy. There are over 6 million small businesses in this country and they create 70 percent of the new jobs every quarter.
“They could be small businesses on Main Street or new green energy startups, but if these companies grow and prosper, jobs are created and America stays competitive,” Mills said.
At his fifth news conference in as many days, Obama also announced his selections of Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois for transportation secretary, California Rep. Hilda Solis for labor secretary and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk for U.S. trade representative. Those appointments also must be confirmed by the Senate.
• LaHood, who is leaving the House after 14 years, would be the second Republican in Democrat Obama’s Cabinet. The other is President Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, who has been asked to stay on at the Pentagon.
• Solis, the daughter of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants, has focused on immigration and environmental issues while in the House.
• Kirk, a partner in the Dallas office of the Houston-based law and lobbying firm Vinson & Elkins, was the first black elected Dallas mayor.
Obama noted Friday his speed in putting his full economic team in place, saying he had done so at an earlier point than previous presidents because of the magnitude of the troubles the country faces.
He declined to put a price tag on an economic stimulus plan he will propose, though economists who have been advising him have suggested a package of as much as $850 billion over two years.
Still, Obama signaled that it could be huge because of his priorities: creating jobs, getting the economy back on track and fixing financial markets among them. “That is going to cost a significant amount of money on the front end,” he said, and then he emphasized what he called long-term benefits of acting and dangers of doing too little.
He vowed to spend responsibly: “We’re not intending to spend money lightly” and “if we’re building a road, it better not be a road to nowhere.”
He spoke just a few hours after the Bush administration announced an emergency bailout of the U.S. auto industry, offering $17.4 billion in rescue loans in exchange for concessions from carmakers and their workers.
Obama said those steps are necessary and the companies must not “squander the chance” to change bad management practices. He said it’s “absolutely necessary” to restructure the companies to save the industry, while also working toward creating “fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow.”
While Obama declined to say specifically what changes he might make to the Bush administration’s plan, he had a message for the Big Three auto companies: “The American people’s patience is running out” and management must “seize on this opportunity” over the next few months to come up with a sustainable plan for survival.
“There are going to be some painful steps that are going to have to be taken,” Obama said.
He disclosed the latest members of his incoming administration on the eve of a Hawaiian holiday vacation. The Democrat has been pushing to finish putting together most of his Cabinet and White House team before his break.
Obama has yet to name his picks for senior intelligence positions; those announcements aren’t expected until he returns.
Maine’s top elected officials on Friday released statements supporting Obama’s nomination of Mills to head the SBA.
“Karen will be a strong voice for small businesses in Maine and around the country,” said Baldacci. “I know that she will do a great job.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a former regional director of the Small Business Administration, said Mills will bring “exactly the experience and financial skills that are needed to help our small businesses start up, grow and prosper.”
Betsy Biemann, president of the Maine Technology Institute, where Mills is a member of the board of directors, said Mills understands the challenges facing rural states like Maine in growing small businesses.
“She’s an out-of-the-box thinker,” Biemann said. “She brings her strong analytical mind and her focus on results to solving whatever the problem is at hand.”
Biemann noted that Mills co-wrote a report earlier this year for the Brookings Institution that outlined the role the federal government could play in developing economic clusters — loosely defined areas where companies with similarities operate and succeed in part because of their proximity.
The report addressed the lack of effort on the federal level to develop such clusters. Maine has worked to enhance cluster development through investment and policies.
“I’m sure she will bring what she learned and the recommendations from that report to the SBA with her,” said Biemann.
Mills, a mother of three sons whose husband is Bowdoin College President Barry Mills, also sits on Baldacci’s Council for the Redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station and serves on the board of Maine’s chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Her selection adds to Maine’s punch in the incoming Obama administration.
Earlier this month, the president-elect selected University of Texas professor Jeanne Lambrew to serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Health Reform. Lambrew is a 1985 graduate of Cape Elizabeth High School who is a nationally recognized expert on Medicare, Medicaid and children’s health care.
Lambrew’s parents, Patricia and Dr. Costas Lambrew, live in Scarborough. He has retired as chief of cardiology at Maine Medical Center.
Susan Rice, a daughter of Portland native Lois Dickson Rice, was named as ambassador to the United Nations.
Matt Wickenheiser of the Portland Press Herald contributed to this report.