Obama taps GE chief to lead U.S. initiative on jobs, competitiveness
President Obama named GE boss Jeffrey Immelt on Friday to head a new high-profile panel that will advise him on ways to help the private sector create jobs.
Tribune Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — President Obama's decision to tap General Electric Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt to lead an initiative on jobs and U.S. competitiveness highlights two key White House focuses: Obama wants to convince corporate America his administration is not anti-business, and he wants to show average citizens the economy is no longer on life support.
Immelt will replace former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker as head of a reconstructed White House panel of business, labor and academic leaders that has offered periodic economic advice to Obama since early in his presidency.
For months Obama has faced criticism his senior staff was filled with academics and political appointees who had no real-world business experience.
By tapping Immelt to head the new board, Obama sent a signal to the corporate world he wants to mend a strained relationship.
"At least now the White House is acknowledging that advice from people who actually work in the private sector would be helpful in developing sound private-sector pro-growth policies," said a top House Republican, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia.
With the two-year mandate of the panel — the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board — expiring next month, Obama decided to change its mission.
He re-christened the panel the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness to highlight the administration's focus on the next steps of recovery: bringing down the nation's persistently high unemployment rate, now at 9.4 percent, and reversing the huge U.S. trade deficit.
"The past two years were about pulling our economy back from the brink," Obama said Friday in announcing the move during a visit to a GE plant in Schenectady, N.Y. "The next two years, our job now is putting our economy into overdrive."
The choice of Immelt, 54, as the new chairman puts the leader of one of America's iconic corporations out front in the administration's effort to boost the economy.
"There is always a healthy tension between the public and private sectors," Immelt wrote in an opinion article Friday in The Washington Post. "However, we all share a responsibility to drive national competitiveness, particularly during economic unrest. This is one of those times."
Obama's move appears to be as much symbolism as substance.
The earlier panel, on which Immelt also served, met with the president four times in two years. Asked about the infrequency, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would probably meet more regularly with the new group.
The economic recovery board helped shape administration policies on expanding exports and incentives for energy efficiency. But if the past is a guide, the council won't have real sway over the day-to-day decisions by Obama's full-time economic-policy team.
Still, the new effort, aimed at expanding the U.S. manufacturing base, increasing exports and boosting research and development, could help the economy in the short and long term, said Sarah Rosen Wartell, executive vice president of the liberal Center for American Progress.
GE's history of moving some of its manufacturing operations overseas didn't sit well with some liberals. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he hoped Immelt's appointment "indicates a transformation in his thinking."
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