Our Pledge To You

News

Sweet: Penny Pritzker races to finish up before Obama is out

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker speaking to the Economic Club of Chicago on Thursday. | James Foster / Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is a runner. And she knows the weeks are racing by to the end of President Barack Obama’s second term.

“I would say, in general, that we are not slowing down,” she said in an interview. “I have a sign in my office that says, ‘Run through the tape.’ And that’s what we are doing.”

We spoke on Thursday after Pritzker came home to give a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago.

The day before, Pritzker was in the Silicon Valley with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to talk about threats to cybersecurity at a conference at Intel Corp.’s Santa Clara, Calif., campus.

On Monday, Pritzker will be on a panel here with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, to talk more about cybersecurity and digital challenges.

Cybersecurity wasn’t a specialty of the billionaire Chicago business executive when she was sworn in as commerce secretary on June 26, 2013.

Pritzker, whose fund-raising success made Obama a viable contender in his first run for president in 2008, told the Economic Club that, after having to “resign from everything” when Obama named her to his cabinet, “It was like going into the witness protection program.”

The first day on the job, she said she discovered she had no “real idea” of the depth and breadth of her agency.

I asked her, after her nearly three years working to boost U.S. business and overseeing an operation that also includes the Census Bureau and the National Weather Service, about the differences between running a large company and a big government agency.

It seemed especially important now given how Gov. Bruce Rauner has struggled to make the business-to-government transition in Illinois and the way Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, talks as if every challenge he’d face in the White House would be just a one-off of a real estate deal.

Pritzker wasn’t about to get into presidential politics. Still, her views on corporate vs. government leadership were instructive.

“You have a lot more stakeholders in government than you do in business,” Pritzker said. “In business, you have your suppliers and your employees and your customers.”

The main stakeholder for Pritzker is the U.S. business community, but there are more players. And Congress controls her budget.

“They have a stake in what we are doing,” she said. “And the administration, obviously.

“So it is more dimensional than running a business. This is more complex.”

In her Economic Club speech, Pritzker mentioned the perils and economic costs of political gridlock three times. She later said she tries to avoid that byproduct of excessive partisanship by making a point of developing relationships with leaders of both major political parties.

Last July, Pritzker and her husband Bryan Traubert had, as dinner guests at their home in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his wife, Elaine Chao, who was labor secretary under President George W. Bush.

Pritzker also has reached out to the Democratic and Republican women in the Senate, hosting them at a dinner.

The highest priority item that remains on Pritzker’s agenda in Washington is working to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Not only is Congress a tough sell there, Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders are campaigning against trade deals, and Hillary Clinton now opposes the Trans-Pacific pact.

Pritzker said she expects to return to Chicago after Obama leaves the White House.

“That’s my plan as of now,” she said. “I have spent no time focusing on what I’ll do after January.

“I am really focused on what we have to get done.”