Obama fills out his second-term Cabinet with SBA nominee

President Obama tapped California banker Maria Contreras-Sweet to head the Small Business Administration during a brief ceremony Wednesday at the White House.

Obama hailed Contreras-Sweet, a Mexican immigrant who founded a bilingual community bank that helped fund small businesses in Latino neighborhoods, as someone who knows "firsthand the challenges that immigrants" and business owners face.

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"So she understands the needs of small business owners like herself. She knows how they can lift entire communities, and ultimately, how they lift our country," Obama said, adding he was "absolutely confident that she's going to do a fantastic job as our Small Business administration."

The president framed the announcement within his broader push for a "year of action" on the administration's economic policy priorities ahead of the State of the Union address.

"Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy," Obama said. "They create most of the country's new jobs, they're cornerstones of our communities, and they're part of the pact that America makes: the idea that if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can build something new, you can make something of yourself."

Obama pointed to the founders of a Wisconsin brewery and Washington, D.C. chain of hoagie shops in the crowd as evidence of how small businesses could grow jobs.

Ahead of a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the president said he would orient his administrators toward ensuring “that we’re not leaving anybody behind and everybody is getting a fair shot” in the new year.

“One of the things that I’m going to be talking to my Cabinet about is how do we use all the tools available to us, not just legislation, in order to advance a mission that I think unifies all Americans — the belief that everybody has got to take responsibility, everybody has got to work hard, but if you do, that you can support a family and meet the kinds of obligations that you have to yourself and your family but also to your communities and to your nation,” Obama said.

Contreras-Sweet, who oversaw the state of California’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency from 1999 to 2003, would become the second Hispanic in the president’s Cabinet, alongside Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

She would also become the eighth woman in the president’s Cabinet, and fill the last remaining vacancy within the group of top administrators. Last year, some congressional Democrats complained that the president’s initial round of Cabinet nominations lacked racial and gender diversity.

Contreras-Sweet would replace Karen Mills, the former SBA administrator who departed the administration last month to move to Harvard University. Jeanne Hulit, a longtime executive at Citizens Bank, has served as the acting administrator since then.

Obama hailed Mills and Hulit as "two extraordinary leaders" that " made it easier and faster for entrepreneurs to get loans, to win contracts, to hire more people."

But the nearly year that elapsed between when Mills announced her intention to leave and Contreras-Sweet's nomination led to criticism from House Small Business Committee chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who argued the delay was evidence "that small businesses really aren’t valued much by this administration."

"Small businesses have been bombarded with a flood of regulations, a health care law that stifles growth, and a constant fear of tax increases during the past five years," Graves continued. "I hope the new SBA Administrator will give a voice to small businesses in this White House and redirect the SBA to focus on its core missions of capital access, contracting, and counseling, while reducing duplication, overlap, and wasteful spending."

— This story was first posted at 8:14 a.m. and has been updated.