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Obama Rounds Out Cabinet With Labor, Transportation Picks « The Washington Independent

In his fifth press conference in as many days this week, President-elect Obama completed his cabinet appointments, tapping Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) as secretary of labor and Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) as secretary of transportation. He also named former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk as the U.S. trade representative, a cabinet-level post, and selected Karen Mills to head the Small Business Administration.

Solis is considered a strong ally of organized labor, and she supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would facilitate the formation of unions. Her selection has earned praise from the Service Employees Internation Union. She is the third Hispanic member of Obama’s cabinet, and like Bill Richardson, she gave a substantial portion of her acceptance speech in Spanish.

LaHood, on the other hand, has been criticized by Democrats for his weak environmental record. Some consider him a token Republican, appointed to fulfill Obama’s promise of a bipartisan cabinet — and indeed, Obama said today that “Ray’s appointment reflects that bipartisan spirit.” His primary credential as a transportation progressive appears to be his tempered support for Amtrak. Obama also highlighted his advocacy for aviation and bicycling, and said, “Few understand our infrastructure challenge better than … Ray LaHood.”

As relatively obscure members of Congress, Solis and LaHood stand in contrast to Obama’s previous cabinet appointments, which include two senators (Hillary Clinton for State and Ken Salazar for Interior), a former senator (Tom Daschle for Health and Human Services) and two governors (Richardson for Commerce and Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security). The New Republic argues that their low profile is an indication that labor and transportation may not be top priorities for Obama.

Kirk served as the mayor of Dallas from 1995 to 2002, and he sought to transform the city into the “capital of NAFTA.” Obama called him a “principled proponent of trade.” The New York Times today highlighted Kirk’s policy differences with Solis over free trade.

Mills is the president of MMP Group in Brunswick, Maine. House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) praised her selection, saying, “This appointment shows that his economic team recognizes the key role that small firms play in job creation and the need to take quick steps to revitalize the agency’s role in spurring growth.”

Obama opened the press conference by applauding President Bush’s $17-billion bailout of the auto industry, arguing that it would contribute to “jobs and wages,” which he called his primary measure of the economy’s success. In the question-and-answer period, he noted that there has been much progress, albeit in “baby steps,” in the negotiations with the auto executives. “We started off with the automakers coming before Congress asking for a blank check,” he said. “And I, like many others, said that’s not gonna fly.”

“My top priority in this administration is going to be to create 2.5 million new jobs,” he continued, “and I want some of those jobs to be in the auto industry.” He added that the concessions made by the auto industry should not be at the expense of the workers and unions.

MSNBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked Obama if there would be a cap to his stimulus spending next year.

“The economic forecasts have deteriorated,” he responded, referencing his conversations with leading economists. “The conclusion has been … that unless you have a bold approach, you could continue to see the economy decline. … That is not acceptable to me, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to the American people.”

Tomorrow, Obama leaves for a family vacation in Hawaii. Conveniently, he will be away when his team releases its report on its interaction with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich next week.

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