WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday named General Electric’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt as the chair of the White House’s new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, restructuring his economic team to place an emphasis on job creation.
Speaking after touring a future GE battery manufacturing plant in Schenectady, N.Y., Obama called Immelt “one of the nation’s most respected and admired business leaders,” adding that in the days ahead he will announce more economists and business leaders who will join Immelt on the new jobs-focused panel.
Obama said that “putting the economy into overdrive” is a top priority for his administration, recommitting himself to spending the next two years trying to speed up the economic recovery. His success or failure there is likely to be the central issue of the coming 2012 presidential campaign.
“Our job is to do everything we can to ensure that businesses can take root, and folks can find good jobs,” the president said. “We’re going to build stuff, and invent stuff,” he added, emphasizing the need to boost American exports to countries around the world, an issue that was a focus during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House earlier this week.
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“That’s where the customers are. It's that simple,” Obama said.
In appointing GE’s Immelt — who for the past decade has run the diversified technology, media and financial services company — the president is solidifying his administration’s efforts to improve its relationship with the business community, with whom the White House has had strained ties for the last two years.
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The move was quickly welcomed by business, with whom Obama is trying to thaw relations that chilled over his healthcare and financial regulatory reforms.
The "President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness" replaces an economic recovery advisory panel led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who is stepping down when his group dissolves next month.
Bringing Immelt on board is the latest sign from Obama that he is serious about building better ties with business.
Obama, a Democrat, recently named JPMorgan Chase executive William Daley to be his chief of staff, drawing praise from the corporate world.
The president promised to rejuvenate relations with business in the aftermath of last year's congressional elections, which gave Republicans a majority in the House and greater strength in the Senate.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who fought Obama's reforms, called the appointment "a promising step toward a renewed focus on creating jobs, boosting economic growth, and enhancing America's global competitiveness."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he hoped the new panel would remind Obama of other steps the United States could take to aid the economy, citing the need to increase free trade and avoid smothering business through regulation.
In an article entitled "White House reboots on economic advice," Politico.com's Abby Philip writes that the appointment "signaled a shift to a new phase of the administration's response to the nation's economic woes."Story: So who's at the state dinner? Here's a list
Immelt, a member of the board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, has been a frequent visitor to the White House and attended a CEOs meeting with Obama and visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday.
He has been a White House ally since the start of Obama's presidency, though his political contributions tend to be bipartisan and he financially supported Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republicans John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney during the 2008 presidential elections.
The change also signals Obama's intention to shift from policies that were designed to stabilize the economy after the 2008 financial meltdown to a renewed focus on increasing employment, a vexing task that could affect his re-election prospects.
The White House says the board's mission will be to help generate ideas from the private sector to speed up economic growth and promote American competitiveness.
The advisory board has included past government officials and representatives from labor and the corporate world. Volcker has been a regular White House adviser, though the board itself has met infrequently with the president.
"Since my campaign for president, I have relied on Paul Volcker's counsel as we worked to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," Obama said in a statement late Thursday. "Paul Volcker is not only one of the wisest economic minds in our country, he's an individual who has for decades fought for policies that help American families and strengthen our economy."
"I have valued his friendship and skill over the years, and I will rely on his counsel for years to come," Obama said.
The former central banker was the driving force behind the "Volcker Rule," a provision in last year's financial reform bill that puts limits on proprietary trading by U.S. banks.
Many on Wall Street vigorously fought the Volcker Rule and some sought to portray Volcker as out of touch with the modern financial system. But he has also received credit for reining in financial industry excesses that helped prompt the global economic crisis.
'In service of our country'
Immelt, in an opinion column in Friday's Washington Post, said he looked forward "to leading the next phase of this effort as we transition from recovery to long-term growth."
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"Business leaders should provide expertise in service of our country. My predecessors at GE have done so, as have leaders of many other great American companies," Immelt wrote.
"There is always a healthy tension between the public and private sectors. However, we all share a responsibility to drive national competitiveness, particularly during economic unrest. This is one of those times."
Immelt added: "My hope is that the council will be a sounding board for ideas and a catalyst for action on jobs and competitiveness."
The executive also signalled that he would be breaking with past assumptions about what would help revitalize the American economy.
"The assumption made by many that the United States could transition from a technology-based, export-oriented economic powerhouse to a services-led, consumption-based economy without any serious loss of jobs, prosperity or prestige was fundamentally wrong," he wrote.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.