- By Clyde Prestowitz
Clyde Prestowitz is the founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute (ESI), where he has become one of the world's leading writers and strategists on globalization and competitiveness, and an influential advisor to the U.S. and other governments. He has also advised a number of global corporations such as Intel, FormFactor, and Fedex and serves on the advisory board of Indonesia's Center for International and Strategic Studies.
So it looks like Chuck Hagel is on track to become Secretary of Defense, and Susan Rice has just gotten off the tracks to the office of the Secretary of State. Jack Lew seems to be headed for Treasury. But what about the office of the real heavyweight — that of the Secretary of Commerce?
Having so far heard no names, let me suggest one of my own. GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt.
I know, I know. I’ve poked at him in the past and criticized his decisions regarding moving some of his businesses to China and the conflict of interest he has in chairing GE while also chairing President Obama’s Commission on Jobs and Competitiveness. But this is like when you justify punishing your kids by telling them that you are only chastising them because you love them. If you didn’t love them, you wouldn’t waste the time to try to correct them.
I’ve only been going after Immelt because I think he has the potential to do something really quite significant. Instead of just making more money, he holds within himself the possibility of making history. He has the right instincts about the global economy and America. He knows we Americans should be producing more of what we consume and exporting more of what we produce. He knows America as a nation is competing at a significant disadvantage in the global marketplace. He hasn’t so far been able to do much about it because as head of GE his interests are often at odds with those of the United States. Therefore, I want to take him out of GE and put him in a spot where his only mission is to make America more competitive.
Why would he want to take the job and a 99 percent pay cut you ask? I know you think I had my tongue in my cheek when I called Commerce the heaviest weight department. Well, of course, partly I did. But partly I didn’t. Think about it this way. The United States has been pursuing a so called "pivot" to Asia by re-emphasizing its military deployments and commitments in the region and by loudly announcing that it’s "back" and means to stay for a long time.
Now, that’s all well and good, but the United States has not been losing influence and power in Asia and the rest of the world for lack of soldiers and military commitments. It’s been losing power and influence because it has become increasingly uncompetitive economically. President Obama has recognized this to some extent be suggesting the creation of a Department of Business to succeed the Department of Commerce. This suggestion drew snorts of laughter from the mostly conventional wisdom pundit class, but it’s actually a good idea. Instead of having things like the Export/Import Bank, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Small Business Administration, and a dozen other business oriented agencies scattered over the landscape, it makes sense to combine them into one major department.
In a world of globalization, the Commerce Department already has very great potential power. None of the recent Secretaries of Commerce have understood the latent power and influence it has. Too many of them have unthinkingly agreed with the notion that Commerce is just a grab-bag of agencies thrown together without rhyme or reason. But this only manifests their ignorance and lack of imagination. In fact, the Secretary of Commerce has the power to offset currency manipulation by countries with export led growth strategies. He/she has the power to stop or foster foreign investment in the United States. I could go on, but you get the idea. The Commerce Secretary, if he/she wanted to, could become as much or even more of a heavyweight in the cabinet as the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Defense.
Immelt has labored in the shadow of Jack Welch for much of his life. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to top Jack at GE. But by serving his country in a critical role at a critical moment, he could do something far more satisfying and meaningful. He could lead an American Renaissance.
I think he might like to do that and I hope President Obama will turn to him and ask him to take the job.