White House May Choose AmEx's Chenault for Treasury Secretary

The longtime Obama supporter could also be in the running for Commerce Dept., or an adviser role.

White House officials have approached American Express Co. Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Chenault about joining President Barack Obama’s second-term administration, possibly as Treasury secretary, according to two people familiar with the matter.

White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew remains the leading contender for the Treasury job, the people said. Still, consideration of Chenault among Obama’s staff may indicate the president hasn’t made a final decision on a replacement for Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who has said he plans to leave the post.

Other potential roles for Chenault, a longtime Obama supporter, may be as Commerce secretary or as a senior adviser to the president, according to the people, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations. White House officials have also considered Xerox Corp. CEO Ursula Burns as a potential nominee for the Commerce Department job, both of the people said.

In addition to the top jobs at Treasury and Commerce, Obama will be filling openings at the State and Defense Departments as he remakes his economic, national security and foreign policy teams for the next four years.

The White House declined to comment on the potential nominations.

Seeking to accelerate economic growth and repair a relationship with the business community frayed by first-term battles over taxes and regulation, Obama has said he would like to have a high-level executive join his administration. Administration officials have said the Commerce Department is a natural spot for such an executive.

Chenault, 61, and Burns, 54, are members of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and have been frequently consulted by Obama on the economy.

“From the beginning, Chenault was an important outside voice from the business world that the President always liked hearing from,” said Austan Goolsbee, a former chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “On matters of financial markets or consumer behavior, Chenault always seemed able to identify trends 6-12 months ahead of time.”

Since 1989, Chenault and his wife have contributed $139,250 to Democrats and $5,700 to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

Burns has donated $26,750 to Democrats, about 88 percent of her total political giving, according to the center, which tracks campaign finance. For Obama’s State of the Union address in 2011, she sat with First Lady Michele Obama to watch the speech.

Business Influence

Mike O’Neill, a spokesman at American Express, declined to comment on a possible Chenault role in the administration. Karen Arena, a Xerox spokeswoman, said Burns “has no plans to leave her leadership position at Xerox.”

During the presidential campaign, Obama said the government needed a “secretary of business,” to coordinate interactions between businesses and government agencies and streamline the federal regulatory process.

Cabinet officers are subject to Senate confirmation. In an interview after his re-election, Obama said the hearings, scrutiny and paperwork involved have made some executives reluctant to enter public service.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve got in terms of recruiting business leaders into the administration is the confirmation process has become so miserable, so drawn out, that for successful folks to want to put themselves through that process, you know, a lot of folks are just shying away,” the president said in the Bloomberg Television interview.

For other top Cabinet posts, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is the leading contender to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has emerged as a top candidate to follow Leon Panetta as secretary of defense, according to administration officials and people familiar with the deliberation.

Obama may announce the nominations of Kerry and Hagel this week, according to the administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Obama may also try to fill a job on his team with Richard Levin, an economist who announced he will retire as president of Yale University, according to one of the people. Levin previously was considered to serve as director of the National Economic Council, a job now held by Gene Sperling.

Levin, reached by phone, declined to comment.

Another possibility to join the administration is Byron Auguste, a director at McKinsey & Co. who runs their social sector practice in Washington, said the person. Auguste did not respond to calls for comment.

 

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