‘All In’

Obama’s Hidden Power Player

She’s soothed ruffled CEOs who feel neglected by the president—and Obama’s billionaire fourth commerce secretary is bringing some much-needed charisma to the job.

Tomas Bravo/Reuters

As President Obama’s fourth secretary of commerce, Penny Pritzker had a lot of repair work to do after she was confirmed 97 to 1 last June. The churn at the top had left the business community, the department’s primary constituency, feeling neglected and unloved, and she has since met with more than a thousand CEOs, answering their questions about why Obama doesn’t like them, letting them talk out their feelings, and assuring them that now their voices are heard, that she’s got the president’s ear.

“I’m helping raise awareness about what we’re doing, so there’s at least more comfort,” she says, sounding more like a therapist than a hard-nosed businessperson. “They don’t have to love each other. It’s OK. We have to work together—we don’t have to be best friends.”

Pritzker co-chaired Obama’s reelection campaign and served as his finance chairwoman in 2008. “I think the president gets a bum rap,” she says, pointing out that he’s a lot more pragmatic than people realize and that his agenda lines up with the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on key issues such as tax reform and immigration reform. She cites a recent administration ruling granting employment authorizations to spouses of some highly skilled H-1B visa holders, which will affect 100,000 people and is something the business community badly wanted.

“I speak the language. I analyze things the same way they do,” she said during a wide-ranging interview in her spacious office overlooking the Mall in Washington. “What’s the return on investment for the American taxpayer? What’s the downside? It gives me credibility with business leaders around the country.”

Pritzker is putting that credibility to good use these days getting nervous CEOs on board for the sanctions the administration is putting in place on Russia. The New York Times reported that she and other officials were calling CEOs to urge them not to attend an economic summit in Moscow later this month. “Absolutely, I’ve been making those phone calls,” she says. “I’ve explained to them how we’re going about the sanctions, how we’re working with our allies, giving them more information. The situation we’re in is not one that warrants business as usual.”

The CEOs she has spoken to are supportive of the president’s policy, she says, with one caveat: They worry that European companies won’t abide by the sanctions and that U.S. businesses will lose market share. “What they don’t want to find is that a company from one of our allies is going in and taking advantage of an American company,” she says. “We’re doing our best to talk to our allies to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s been an issue.”

Pritzker has never been in government before. A businesswoman and a philanthropist whom Forbes ranks the 758th-richest person in the world, she says being a Cabinet secretary is a sabbatical from the private sector and that she wants to have impact. “I’m very focused on keeping my head down and accomplishing what we need to get done,” she says. Copies of a 53-page strategic plan are on the coffee table in her office for visitors to peruse. “America Is Open for Business” is the cover line, all in caps. She likes the slogan and went online to order a sign to hang on her door that says “Open for Business.” She says she’s old enough to remember when shopkeepers used those signs.

During her confirmation hearing, she told the senators, “I’m all in,” a commitment she has kept. She’s not commuting to Chicago, her family’s home base, where she is heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune. “I moved here, I live here,” she says, and her energy and can-do optimism is refreshing in an administration where gridlock has squeezed much of the joy and promise out of public policy.

“I’m a real nut about following up,” she said. She keeps a “tracker” of all the things she’s promised to do with “do-outs for who’s got to do what and get things done.” One of her deputy chiefs of staff keeps track of the tracker, an Excel spreadsheet, she says. Reminded that government is her sabbatical from the private sector, she laughs, “This is my tempo,” recounting how one of the men in her security detail asked her, “Were you always like this?” Pritzker gets up each morning at 5 a.m. to run and last month, together with her husband, completed a triathlon—a mile swim, 25-mile bike ride, and 10K race—28 minutes faster than her previous time. “It helps keep my mind and body healthy,” she says, repeating her mantra, “All In!”

When she spotted a fellow triathlon runner with a NOAA T-shirt—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is part of the Commerce Department—Pritzker asked if she could take her picture with him. “Sure,” he said. “Who are you?”

A storm-tracking pilot with NOAA, he didn’t recognize her, but a lot of other folks in political Washington are learning who this dynamo is. Pritzker brings much needed star power to a charisma-challenged second-term Cabinet. She is popular on Capitol Hill and talks regularly to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “I also entertain,” she says, describing her days in her adopted city. “I had three Republican senators for dinner Monday.” Asked which ones, she checked first with an aide to see if it was OK to identify them, then named Tennessee’s Bob Corker, North Dakota’s John Hoeven, and Georgia’s Johnny Isakson.

There were no wives present, and her husband, ophthalmologist Bryan Traubert, wasn’t there, but he’s with her in Washington. “Our daughter is in college and our son is working, so for us to have an adventure here, meeting new people and tackling issues, has been a real blessing,” she says. Her strategic plan is for fiscal years 2014-18, and she’s got lots of ideas to improve workforce training and American competitiveness. After almost a year on the job, Pritzker radiates confidence and competence, qualities that serve the president well as she works to build his support among skeptical business leaders.