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Obama names GE CEO to head new jobs council

A new jobs council marks the next phase in America's recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression, President Obama said today as he named General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt to head the new board.

Established by executive order, the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness will focus on finding new ways promote growth and spur private-sector hiring and investment. The new panel replaces the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB), which was headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who is stepping down. The PERAB sunsets on Feb. 6.

The change reflects the administration's determination to focus on job growth -- as well as a recognition that while economic indicators show the world's largest economy is recovering, the slow pace of that recovery has not done enough to bring down the unemployment rate, which stands at a "still unacceptably high" 9.4%.

"Over the last year, businesses have added more than a million jobs. The pace of hiring and growth is picking up. And that's encouraging news. But at the same time, while businesses are adding jobs, millions of people are out there looking for work," the president said after touring the GE plant, home to GE's largest energy division, with Immelt.

"The past two years were about pulling our economy back from the brink. "The next two years -- our job now -- is putting our economy into overdrive."

Today's announcement also represents another move by this White House to reach out to the business community. Earlier this month, the president named William Daley, a former Commerce secretary and banker with strong ties to business, as chief of staff. Also this week, Obama announced a review of federal regulations to make sure they don't put an undue burden on businesses. And the president is scheduled to speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 7.

The hope is that these appointments could push corporate America to take the roughly $2 trillion it has sitting on the sidelines and invest it to help create jobs.

The president said Immelt understood the important role the private sector plays in creating jobs. Immelt has had a relationship with this White House for some time, having served on the PERAB for the past two years, and having attended numerous other meetings here. He was also on the guest list at the state dinner for China on Wednesday night.

"I am so proud and pleased that Jeff has agreed to chair this panel, my council on jobs and competitiveness," Obama said, calling Immelt one of the nation's most respected and admired business leaders in the country.

Jobs and the economy will take center stage in the president's State of the Union address on Tuesday, according to the White House, along with getting government spending under control -- a key concern among Republicans who now control the House of Representatives -- and improving America's ability to compete globally.

After touring the Schenectady, NY plant in with the president, Immelt spoke to the audience of assembled employees and local and federal politicians, thanking Obama for the honor of serving.

"Despite fact that 60% of GE revenues are outside of the United States, I personally -- and this company -- share in the responsibility and the accountability to make sure that this is the most competitive and productive country in the world," Immelt said.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post published this morning, Immelt wrote that he wanted the new council -- which will include small and large businesses, labor, economists and government -- to be a "sounding board" for ideas. And he said it would focus on innovation, manufacturing, exports, and promoting free trade agreements to help meet and exceed the goal Obama set in last year's State of Union of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years.

"We must set as our highest economic priority not just increasing our exports, as the president has pledged, but also making the United States the world's leading exporter in the 21st century," Immelt wrote. "Those who advocate increasing domestic manufacturing jobs by erecting trade barriers have it exactly wrong."

Obama echoed those sentiments in New York state, touting the free trade agreement reached with South Korea and saying America's success would be determined not only by what can be built in places like Schenectady, but also what we can be sold in places like Shanghai.

The president also highlighted the tax-cut legislation he signed into law last month, which included incentives to encourage business investment -- like allowing companies to deduct 100% of investments in equipment for the next two years -- and tax credits to support investments in renewable energy -- credits that have already helped companies like GE.

Early reaction from the other side of the aisle was lukewarm.

"A new commission will only be helpful if it yields a new way of looking at the economy in the White House," Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said in an email. "The American people are looking for Washington to move past the now thoroughly discredited notion that economic recovery lies in greater government spending, and this announcement doesn't exactly do that."