Center: Penny Pritzker
Four years ago, billionaire Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker withdrew her name from consideration as commerce secretary in Barack Obama’s first cabinet. In fact, she had no choice but to withdraw. Confirmation hearings would have made Chuck Hagel’s defense secretary hearing today look like a walk in Lafayette Park. Hyatt’s tempestuous relations with hotel housekeepers, and the Pritzker family’s part ownership of the failed Superior Bank (riddled with subprime loans) would have allowed unions, and those who argued that subprime lending pushed the country to the brink of depression, to cast Pritzker as a villainous capitalist. It's a role that the philanthropic, hardworking, 53-year-old Prizker, a Stanford JD and MBA, certainly didn’t deserve.
Back then, President Obama didn’t have the political capital to nominate her; doing so would not only have left her reputation in tatters, it would have left the rookie President bruised and battered just as he was struggling to address the economic collapse.
Four years later, things are different. Obama’s approval numbers are soaring and he has publicly and repeatedly said, with audible, visible joy, that he will never have to run for public office again. Left unsaid—well, his inaugural address said it in so many words—is the obvious: he can now do what he wants. And it appears that he wants Penny Pritzker in that job.
Fortunately, she’s got the training and experience to be really good at it.
That said, Obama owes her big time. Then-state Senator Obama, hanging out unhappily in Springfield, forged a friendship with Pritzker; her financial support and introductions allowed him to move up to U.S. Senator, his launch pad to the White House.
The financial boost that Pritzker gave Obama is huge. She bundled $500,000 for the reelection and served as his national finance chairman in 2008, raising a reported $745 million for the ’08 campaign and $53 million for the ’09 inauguration. She was said to be disillusioned with him during the first term, and while she gave up the job as national finance chair, she took the title in 2012 of national co-chair of Obama for America.
Obama may sound almost boastful about winning the nation’s highest office twice. He seems to have no yen, like Bill Clinton and FDR before him, to serve and serve and serve again. Yet he has to feel the pressure of time before he becomes a lame duck and power shifts to probable successors. He knows (and often says, with refreshing honesty) that the second term is all about legacy. That includes a library and museum, and that requires many millions, almost all of it from deep-pocket donors like Penny Pritzker (who’s ranked 271st in Forbes's latest list of the 400 wealthiest Americans with a net worth of $1.8 billion).
While Pritzker doesn’t give Obama the minority cabinet appointment he needs, she does add a woman to a cabinet that is, according to his critics, not just too white but also too male. And he puts her in a slot that's historically been occupied almost exclusively by men, with only two exceptions: one appointed by Carter and the other by George H.W. Bush. (Commerce’s deputy secretary, Rebecca Blank, is currently serving as acting secretary since the resignation of John Bryson because of seizures he suffered last year.)
Should Pritzker get the job and win confirmation (both likely, I think), she’ll be the fourth Chicagoan in the post—Peter Peterson in the Nixon administration, Phil Klutznick in the Carter administration (whose daughter Bettylu Saltzman has also been pivotal in Obama's rise to the top), and Bill Daley in the Clinton administration.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune