Obama mulls choices for Commerce secretary job

WASHINGTON, March 8 Tue Mar 8, 2011 12:47pm EST

WASHINGTON, March 8 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has a chance to recruit a business leader to succeed Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, or to shuffle his staff by tapping U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk for the job, business sources said on Tuesday.

Obama plans to appoint Locke, a Chinese-American, to be the next ambassador to China, administration officials said.

The Commerce Department is the traditional voice of industry in any administration, but it also houses a diverse collection of agencies ranging from the Census Bureau to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While focusing on issues like exports and business growth, the Commerce secretary serves as one of several top players on Obama's economic team. Reviving jobs growth is crucial to the president's re-election prospects in 2012.

Obama, who has tried to mend fences with business after bruising fights over his healthcare overhaul and financial regulatory reform, could be tempted to bring in a business leader to head the sprawling department.

Moving Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas and a friend of Obama, into the slot is an option with a precedent. Former President Bill Clinton made then-U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor the Commerce secretary after the death of Ron Brown died in a 1996 plane crash.

"I think their first choice would be a CEO, but they may go the political route if that's not available," a business official said, speaking on condition he not be identified.

He noted the administration had difficulty finding a business leader willing to join the government when they were looking for a replacement for former chief White House economic advisor Lawrence Summers.

The White House declined to comment on who might be considered for the position.

Locke would replace Jon Huntsman, the current ambassador to China, who is mulling a presidential run of his own and is leaving his job at the end of April.

Should Kirk succeed Locke, the administration might also consider a further shuffling of roles by tapping Obama aide Michael Froman for the trade representative position, Politico reported on Tuesday.

Froman, a senior White House adviser on international economic issues, is seen by many as the intellectual force behind Obama's trade agenda. Promoting him to the USTR would give him a more public role.

His key challenge, at least initially, will be seeking ratification in Congress of the bilateral trade deal with South Korea and considering whether to move ahead on pacts with Colombia and Panama.

(Writing by Caren Bohan and Doug Palmer; Editing by David Alexander, Philip Barbara and Paul Simao)

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