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President Obama set off today on a three-day visit to Latin America. Commerce and trade are high on his agenda for the trip. And just before leaving the White House this morning, the president nominated a new Commerce secretary and a new U.S. trade representative.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: With these nominations, the president has rounded out his second-term Cabinet. He filled the last two spots with familiar faces. Penny Pritzker, the president's choice for Commerce secretary, is a Chicago businesswoman who was a major fundraiser for Obama's campaigns. Mike Froman, tapped as a top trade negotiator, has been a White House advisor on international economics.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And I've had a chance to get to know Penny and Mike not just as leaders and professionals, but also as friends. One of the reasons I'm proud to nominate them is they don't forget what matters. They know this is not about just growing balance sheets. It's about growing opportunity for people. It's about growing a sense of security for the middle class. And, most of all, they operate with integrity.
HORSLEY: Pritzker sits on the board of the Hyatt Hotel Corporation, which her father co-founded. She's also served on the president's jobs council. And she spearheaded an effort to bring businesses together with community colleges to develop tailored worker training.
OBAMA: Penny understands that just as great companies strengthen the community around them, strong communities and skilled workers also help companies thrive.
HORSLEY: Froman, a former Citigroup executive, has been the president's point person or "sherpa" at international gatherings like the G-20 and the G-8. Obama says Froman has been a driving force at those economic summit meetings.
OBAMA: And I'm not surprised, by the way, because we went to law school together. He was much smarter than me then.
OBAMA: He continues to be smarter than me now.
HORSLEY: Froman has also been deeply involved in negotiations that revived trade agreements, initially worked out during the Bush administration, with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.
Jeff Schott, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says that makes Froman a good successor for outgoing trade representative, Ron Kirk.
JEFF SCHOTT: Having him move over from the White House to the U.S. Trade Representative's office is not just putting someone in the task who can hit the ground running, but he can actually accelerate the process because he's been at the heart of everything the administration has done on trade.
HORSLEY: When he was first running for president against Hillary Clinton, Obama was often critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Over time, though, Obama has embraced what he calls high quality trade pacts. For the last three years, U.S. negotiators have been working on a trans-Pacific trade deal that would include countries with some 40 percent of the world's economic output. Obama says he'd like to complete the agreement by year's end.
Schott says that illustrates the administration's evolving attitude on trade.
SCHOTT: They were very cautious at the start, in large measure because the economic crisis was so profound that they had to get stability in the domestic market before they could pursue international initiatives. They established their credentials with the labor unions by what they did to rescue the U.S. economy, and that has paid dividends in giving them more flexibility in pursuing some international initiatives.
HORSLEY: Many Americans remain skeptical, though, that free trade agreements benefit American workers. Obama will continue to press that argument. And if they're confirmed, so will his new trade and Commerce Cabinet members.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.