WASHINGTON — Seeking to boost exports and accelerate the growth of the U.S. alternative energy industry, President Barack Obama is bringing in business executive and environmentalist John Bryson to lead the Commerce Department.
But Bryson’s nomination was already in peril Tuesday, as Republican lawmakers renewed their threats to block any commerce secretary nominee until the Obama administration sends them final legislation on three key free trade agreements.
Bryson would bring a unique skill set to the Commerce Department, an agency tasked in part with representing the interests of U.S. businesses abroad. The 67-year-old is the former chairman and chief executive of Edison International, a California-based power company; co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization; and has served on the board of major international businesses, including The Boeing Co. and the Walt Disney Co.
Obama announced Bryson’s nomination Tuesday at the White House, lauding him as, “a business leader who understands what it takes to innovate, create jobs and to persevere through tough times.”
“As commerce secretary, his job is going to be an important part of my economic team promoting American business and American products around the globe,” he said.
Tuesday’s announcement shifts Obama’s focus back to the economy after several weeks dominated by foreign policy, from the death of Osama bin Laden to the president’s four-country, six-day European trip. Though the economy has rebounded from the depths of the recession, unemployment remains at 9 percent and the White House expects the economy to be the top issue as Obama runs for re-election.
Among Bryson’s key roles at Commerce would be overseeing Obama’s plans to double U.S. exports in the next four years, an initiative the president says would lead to much-needed job growth.
But the president would also be gaining a key energy adviser, particularly in the clean energy sector. Bryson helped oversee Edison’s transformation into a leading wind and solar company and launched a plan to turn 65 million square feet of unused commercial rooftops into solar power stations with enough electricity for more than 160,000 homes.
If confirmed by the Senate, Bryson would replace outgoing Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whom Obama recently named as his next ambassador to China.
Shortly after Obama announced Bryson’s nomination, GOP lawmakers said they stood by their earlier pledges to block any trade-related nominees, including commerce secretary, until the administration submits final legislation for trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The first steps in that process are under way, but it is unclear when lawmakers might receive final versions of the trade pacts.
Another top Republican, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, assailed the Bryson-founded resources defense council as a “radical environmental organization”, and said he would be “working actively” to defeat his nomination.
The White House implored Republicans to allow Bryson’s nomination to proceed.
“We think that it would be folly to hold up a nominee so important as the commerce secretary for any reason,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said.
Bryson is the latest businessman to be brought into the administration as the White House grapples with ways to shake its reputation as anti-business. Private sector leaders have griped about what they see as burdensome new financial and health care regulations, unfriendly tax policies and vast government spending. They were also put off by Obama’s harsh depiction of “fat cat bankers” and “reckless practices,” a label he applied both to Wall Street and to oil giant BP following the Gulf oil spill.
Following the sweeping Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama admitted that he hadn’t done enough to assure the business community that he was on its side. That admission was quickly followed by news that Obama would name Bill Daley, a JPMorgan Chase executive, as his chief of staff, giving the business community an ally at the highest levels of the White House.
Daley, a former commerce secretary himself, and Bryson served together on the Boeing board. While Daley led the search to fill the commerce post, White House officials wouldn’t say what role he played in advocating for his former colleague.
Bryson quickly won praise from Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who said in a statement that he hoped Bryson’s years of experience running a major company would lead him to be a strong voice for American businesses.
Bryson served as Edison’s chief executive for 18 years, retiring in 2008. He left the company with a retirement package valued at nearly $65 million, including pension benefits and stock options accumulated during his 24 years with the company, according to Edison disclosure statements filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He was paid $200,000 a year for three years after retirement as an Edison consultant and he served on the boards of Walt Disney and Boeing. Those board positions paid a combined $485,053 in 2010, SEC records show.
Associated Press reporter Brett Blackledge in Washington and news researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.