White House photo by Chuck Kennedy
Obama announces his selection of Pritzker for Commerce secretary, Froman for U.S. trade representative.

Seeking to fill top economic posts in his administration, President Obama has selected Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker as his nominee to lead the Commerce Dept. and White House aide Michael Froman to be U.S. Trade Representative.

The choices, announced on May 2, are of keen interest to design firms, contractors and construction equipment and materials companies that want to expand their business overseas or fight what they view as unfair trade practices by foreign competitors.

Jessica Salmoiraghi, American Institute of Architects director of federal relations and counsel, says that access to international markets continues to be an important issue for the design and construction industry. "There are markets where it's very challenging to work," she says.

Nick Yaksich, Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) vice president for government and industry affairs, notes that, in 2010, Obama set a goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years. “Now we need that leadership, especially at Commerce,” Yaksich notes.

Yaksich says equipment makers are committed to seeing a rise in exports. “Government assistance, government promotion of U.S. products is critical,” he adds.

The Commerce Dept. has had an acting secretary—Rebecca Blank—since last June, when John Bryson resigned, citing health issues. Blank has announced she is leaving to become chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Pritzker, whose family launched the Hyatt hotel company, has an extensive background in the real estate and financial industries and also has been a major fund-raiser for Obama in his presidential campaigns.

Moreover, Salmoiraghi notes, "She's part of the Pritzker family, and there really is a love of architecture within that family."  In 1979, the family established the Pritzker Architecture Prize, awarded annually.

Salmoiraghi adds, "We're very excited to have someone who appreciates architecture and understands the value of design in that [Commerce Dept.] position. And we think that as American design gets further promotion abroad ... it exports the best of America."

If confirmed as Commerce secretary, Pritzker would head a huge department that includes such diverse agencies as the International Trade Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The department also compiles a wealth of economic statistics, including monthly reports on construction spending.