Commerce chief is facing challenges

John Bryson knows what it’s like to be in crisis mode.

His 18-year stint as chief executive of Edison International included a tumultuous stretch a decade ago when he fought to keep the company afloat during the California electricity crisis.

Now, as the nation’s newly installed Commerce secretary, Bryson, 68, faces major challenges amid the slow economic recovery.

At home, he must try to convince skeptical corporate executives that the Obama administration is not anti-business. Abroad, Bryson must find a way to boost U.S. exports and contend with China, where the government’s currency policies and recently enacted auto tariffs have heightened trade tensions between the two economic superpowers.


Bryson took office in late October despite some Republican opposition stemming from his environmental views. He was a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, supported a 2009 House bill to address climate change through a cap-and-trade system and led green initiatives at Edison.

Within weeks of being sworn in, Bryson accompanied President Obama to meet key world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii. From there Bryson headed to China on a trade mission.

The Times talked with Bryson recently about his priorities and views on key business issues. Here are excerpts:


The administration has had a tumultuous relationship with some U.S. businesses, particularly Wall Street. What will you do to try to repair that relationship?

I actually have already reached out to a lot of businesspeople around the country. I’m no expert on the Wall Street point of view

A high percentage of the people that I talk to in business, it’s not clear whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. What they’re about is trying to build and grow businesses in a practical way.


What message are you bringing to them about the Obama administration and its view toward businesses and job creation?

I’m bringing the view that the president really does care about the competitiveness and strength and job-producing potential of American business and wants to do everything he reasonably can to enhance that.


You said recently that the U.S. has reached a point where we cannot quietly accept China ignoring many of the trade rules. Does this signal a more aggressive approach by the administration toward China?

The emphasis that the president has, that I fully share, is this is a really important bilateral relationship in which there are very important mutual benefits. What’s happened over the 10 years [since China joined the World Trade Organization] ... is the Chinese made a whole series of commitments. Those commitments need to be honored.

We did get some meaningful commitments on the part of Vice Premier Wang Qishan, a very able, smart person, who committed himself to take up leadership with respect to enhancing intellectual property protections. So what we need to do, in a way that’s mutually focused, is see to it that those things really get done.

And we will have to ask, and continue to ask, the Chinese to make transparent specific dates, specific times, that we can know these things are truly being done. And it’s in China’s interest that we maintain this good mutual trade as well as ours.


How would you propose the U.S. respond to the latest Chinese tariffs on SUVs and large cars?

It concerns me. These additional tariffs look kind of like retaliation, perhaps relative to the solar industry putting something before the Department of Commerce [asking for an investigation into trade practices by Chinese solar manufacturers].

Our initial look at these tariffs on automobiles is that it’s very hard for us to see any merit in doing that other than possible retaliation.


Would you challenge the tariffs at the WTO?

They certainly can be taken to the WTO, and that’s not an uncommon step in these processes.


How important are green technology investments to rebuilding the U.S. economy, and given your background on some of these issues, will you be providing input to the president?

The president is a big supporter of green technology development. And California has been uniquely supportive. The major investor-owned utilities in California have been pioneers in these areas. Yes, I will continue to advise and support the president with respect to that.


People have been somewhat disappointed that alternative energy investments have not yielded as many jobs as anticipated. How much can we expect in terms of job creation for all the money and effort?

You’re right, there have not been as many jobs associated with the development of clean energy technologies ... but essentially none of the manufacturing is being done in the United States.

China has offered very, very, very low-cost manufacturing facilities for the production of many of these emerging technologies in the clean energy area and many other areas. So there’s been a kind of subsidization of manufacturing there that again is questionable under the rules of the World Trade Organization. That’s something we’ll just have to continue to focus on.


What are you planning to do to encourage American businesses to keep manufacturing here and produce jobs here?

That will be a judgment for American businesses. What I’ll try to do here is work in every way I can to assist and support American businesses to get more competitive to grow their businesses further.

What’s beginning to happen is the costs in China and some other places around the world ... are going up. So now you have some of the businesses that have invested in China bringing those investments instead back home for manufacturing and development here.


American companies have a lot of cash on hand. How can you persuade them to start using that to create jobs?

The ones we hear the most about tend to be in the banking sector.... The medium- and small-size businesses tend to be very tight on cash. Those that have ample cash right now, I make a very strong appeal that they put that cash to work, that they make those investments here.

And I believe that it’s a mistaken idea that the prudent and sensible way to proceed if there is quite ample cash is to be hyper-conservative, to be reluctant to invest in this economy right now.