Administration

Biden looking for Commerce secretary to rebuild relationships with business community

President-elect Joe Biden’s Commerce secretary will play a critical role in proving his administration can work effectively with the business community, which is eager to reestablish a relationship with the White House.

Biden has named the majority of his Cabinet selections but Commerce is still outstanding. Two notable businesswomen, Meg Whitman and Mellody Hobson, have been floated as possible nominees, with some suggesting he could choose a Republican for the role.

Whoever he picks will have an opening to rebuild relationships. The powerful pro-business Chamber of Commerce, for example, has not shied away from being critical of President Trump on high-profile policy issues, a departure from previous norms for the historically GOP-leaning group.

“Trump’s decision to abandon the Chambers of Commerce leaves an opening Biden could really take advantage of politically. Business leaders consistently say they long for normalcy and predictability. This present team has not sought input from the business groups as in the past. Choosing a Republican or someone close to the business community would go a long way to help solidify his support among this neglected segment,” a former senior Trump Commerce official said.

Biden is also taking diversity into consideration after promising to create a “Cabinet that looks like America.” His top contenders for attorney general, outgoing Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Judge Merrick Garland, could indicate he’s likely to choose a woman or person of color to run Commerce.

If nominated, Hobson would earn a warm reception from Black lawmakers and civil rights groups that have pushed Biden to appoint more Black leaders, and Black women in particular, to his Cabinet.

Hobson formerly served as the chairperson of Dreamworks Animation, and she is currently the president of Ariel Investments. She has donated to liberal causes, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to the pro-Biden Unite the Country super PAC, and a $1 million donation to the Democratic Senate Majority PAC.

One Democratic source described filling the remaining Cabinet slots as a game of musical chairs, suggesting that nominating a Black woman to lead Commerce could give Biden cover to nominate Jones, a white man, for attorney general, while nominating a Latina for a different role, like head of the Small Business Administration.

But there is also speculation that Biden, in an effort to reach across the aisle with at least one Cabinet pick, could pick a Republican to lead the department.

Meg Whitman, the former Hewlett Packard CEO and head of the short-lived media venture Quibi, has been bandied about as a potential selection. Whitman unsuccessfully ran as the GOP candidate for California governor in 2010. She endorsed Biden during the Democratic National Convention earlier this year.

“If there is a gap in Biden’s economic team, it is light on those with expertise in the business world,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

Whoever the nominee is will be inheriting an agency that was at the center of controversy throughout Wilbur Ross’s tenure in the Trump administration. Ross attempted to add a citizenship question to the Census, he reportedly threatened to fire officials at a government weather agency after they contradicted Trump’s predictions about Hurricane Dorian, and he suggested early on in the pandemic that it would actually be good for economic growth in the United States. 

While Janet Yellen will largely set economic policy as Treasury secretary, the Commerce secretary will be tasked with managing trade policy and the U.S. relationship with China and with institutions like the World Trade Organization, all of which were upended by the Trump administration and its reliance on tariffs in particular.

“Particularly as the U.S.-China cleavage has widened, Commerce needs a skilled business leader who can rally the entire business community and get everyone on side. The task is critical [for any nominee] to being a success. This would also align with the president-elect’s goal to create unity where there has been division,” said Patrick Wilson, former Commerce business liaison under Trump.

Top CEOs have clashed with the Trump administration, most recently when over 160 leaders of major New York companies called on the president to move forward with the transition. That included big names like CEO of Goldman Sachs David Solomon, Visa CEO Alfred Kelly, Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga, BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink and Deloitte CEO Joseph Ucuzoglu.

It followed Business Roundtable CEO Joshua Bolten, who served as chief of staff under former President George W. Bush, saying that top U.S. companies are concerned about what impact the delayed transition will have on the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Commerce Department really does provide an opportunity for the incoming administration in terms of filing the position with someone who is familiar to and can engage the business community. The truth is that I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand in the business community to address a lot of the issues that President-elect Biden’s talking about, whether that’s infrastructure, immigration, or trade,” a trade association source said.

The Chamber of Commerce’s clashes with Trump were notably on immigration and trade. The lobbying group has called for the Biden administration and the next Congress to quickly tackle an infrastructure package, which never came together under Trump.

The Chamber joined other business groups in July to sue over a Trump executive order suspending the issuance of certain temporary worker visas through the end of 2020.

“If you look at the nominations and the staffing selection that the president-elect has made so far, one of the clear takeaways is that these are men and women with a lot of experience in the work of government and how government operates, including stakeholder engagement, and ultimately that portends a return to the policy-making process that is familiar to many of us,” said Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer.

There was untapped potential for the Trump administration to work with state and local business leaders, sources said, and Biden putting a person with a background in business at the helm of the Commerce Department could fix that.

“The selection of the next Commerce Secretary will be the most important signal to business leaders that they’ve been heard. Given the sometimes thorny and broken relationship with Chambers of Commerce and business sector stakeholders during the Ross tenure, most will be excited to turn a page and find a more traditional champion for American business at the helm,” a former Trump Commerce official said.

Tags Biden transition Chamber of Commerce Commerce Department Donald Trump doug jones Janet Yellen Joe Biden Merrick Garland Wilbur Ross

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