Obama names GE chief to head economic panel

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's decision to tap General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt to lead an initiative on jobs and U.S. competitiveness highlights two key White House focuses: Obama wants to convince corporate America that his administration is not anti-business, and he wants to show average citizens that the economy is no longer on life support.

Immelt will replace former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker as head of a reconstructed White House panel of business, labor and academic leaders that has offered periodic economic advice to Obama since early in his presidency.

For months, Obama has faced criticism that his senior staff was filled with academics and political appointees who had no real-world business experience. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently said he wondered whether anyone at the White House had ever even run a lemonade stand.

By tapping Immelt to head the new board, Obama sent a signal to the corporate world that he wants to mend a strained relationship. "At least now the White House is acknowledging that advice from people who actually work in the private sector would be helpful in developing sound private-sector, pro-growth policies," said a top House Republican, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia. But, he added, "the Obama administration needs to rework its policies, not just its staff."

With the two-year mandate of the panel — the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board — expiring next month, Obama decided to change its makeup and mission.

He rechristened the panel the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness to underscore the administration's focus on the next steps of recovery — bringing down the nation's persistently high unemployment rate, now at 9.4 percent, and reversing the huge U.S. trade deficit. "The past two years were about pulling our economy back from the brink," Obama said Friday in announcing the move during a visit to a GE plant in Schenectady, N.Y. "The next two years, our job now is putting our economy into overdrive."

The choice of Immelt as the new chairman puts the leader of one of America's iconic corporations out front in the administration's effort to boost the sluggish economy. "There is always a healthy tension between the public and private sectors," Immelt wrote in an opinion article Friday in The Washington Post. "However, we all share a responsibility to drive national competitiveness, particularly during economic unrest. This is one of those times."

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