Obama support for GE, Boeing, JPMorgan doesn’t always go both ways
President Obama has repeatedly embraced three titans of American commerce, General Electric, Boeing and JPMorgan Chase, showering their chief executives with praise and adopting policies that benefit the companies.
His economic stimulus package awarded $200 million in contracts to GE, according to the company, and he has traveled the world selling Boeing airplanes — even joking that he should receive a gold watch for how many he has sold. Obama rejected calls from some economists to break up the biggest banks after the financial crisis, leaving JPMorgan, the biggest of them all, whole.
Yet these companies — from the C-suite to the rank and file — have shown little enthusiasm for the president.
Top executives have repeatedly criticized his rhetoric and his policies or have declined to support some of his most significant proposals. Employees, in a contrast to 2008, have scaled back financial support for Obama’s campaign.
The president’s relationship with GE, Boeing and JPMorgan offers a window into his sometimes-strained dealings with corporate America. He has for 31 / 2 years tried to nurture better connections to business, inviting top executives into his inner circle, promoting manufacturing and exports, and pumping money into a weak economy.
But he hasn’t always received a positive reception, with executives complaining about his tone and his policies. That may create difficulties for Obama as he runs for reelection against Republican Mitt Romney, who says business experience is one of his chief credentials.
The president’s dwindling support among some in business is evidenced in campaign giving.
Although employees of GE, Boeing and JPMorgan backed Obama and other Democratic candidates by wide margins in 2008, that backing has declined this year. GE and JPMorgan employees have switched their allegiance to Romney and his fellow Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while Boeing employees continue to support the president, albeit by a smaller advantage.
William Daley, who was serving as a senior JPMorgan executive and was a Boeing director when Obama tapped him in 2011 to be his chief of staff, said business leaders have generally not understood that the president’s job is to represent American workers, not just business interests.
“Many people in business have misjudged the president’s intentions,” Daley said. “They don’t understand the difficulties the American people are having.”
He added: “A lot of people in the business community have historically been and are Republicans. That’s a fact of life.”
According to their public statements and people close to them, the chief executives of JPMorgan, GE and Boeing bear no ill will toward the White House and have had plenty of access to administration officials to advocate their views on business policy.
What has bothered them has been the White House’s rhetoric, which they perceive as sometimes unfairly critical of business, and its support of regulations that they consider burdensome.
JPMorgan head Jamie Dimon, a longtime Democrat, has spent millions of his company’s money lobbying against several provisions of the Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial regulation, which is one of Obama’s signature domestic achievements. He also has expressed exasperation with Democratic rhetoric.
“I’ve gotten disturbed at some of the Democrats’ anti-business behavior, the attacks on work ethic and successful people,” Dimon said in May on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Boeing chief executive W. James McNerney Jr. was outraged by efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to try to stop Boeing from creating a non-union plant in South Carolina. Although the NLRB was not controlled by Obama, he appointed the board official who filed the case.
As chairman of the Business Roundtable, a lobby that has often been critical of Obama, McNerney has expressed concerns in conference calls and interviews about the administration’s approach to medical and environmental regulation.
For instance, he has said, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, which fall under Obama’s purview, often have had an attitude of “guilty until proven innocent” in their oversight of companies.
A person close to the Boeing chief said that he considered some of the White House’s rhetoric early on as unfairly critical of corporate America but that it has improved.
Still, in a recent interview with Bloomberg Television, McNerney said the president needs to show more “sensitivity” to the needs of business. “I think there could be more of it. There is some and they’re trying to reach out, but no, I’d like to see more.”
GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt, who has the high-profile post of chairman of Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a group composed largely of executives who advise Obama on job creation, has been more reticent. But a person who has talked with Immelt said he shares many of the same concerns.
Although they have talked about business and the White House in the past, representatives of Immelt, McNerney and Dimon declined to comment for this article.
Obama’s supporters say that his policies kept the economy out of a depression, and that big firms have earned robust profits during the recovery.
“I think people are quick to forget how dire the situation was. We had our entire global financial system on the brink of disaster,” said Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce.com and a campaign co-chairman. “The president was part of the team that stabilized our global financial system.”
Daley, who stepped down as chief of staff earlier this year, said the administration has worked hard to ensure that regulations make sense. But he was incredulous about the complaints regarding Obama’s tone.
“That’s a constant refrain: ‘We don’t like the rhetoric. Oh my gosh, it’s terrible,’ ” Daley said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, guys, politics is tough business.’ ”
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, one of the two union leaders on the president’s jobs council, said he has been dismayed by how top executives have responded to Obama’s efforts to reach out.
“The president, in good faith, thought these guys were some of the best and brightest titans out there. They’ll come in and tell [him] about what they need to create jobs,” he said. Instead, “they were concerned about their niche rather than about the country.”
Trumka recalled a meeting of the council in Pittsburgh one morning in October, at a time when Obama was promoting a $450 billion package of measures to boost job growth.
The union leader rose from his seat, looked at Immelt and said, “The president has just put out a jobs bill. Don’t you think one of the things we should do as his jobs council is look at that and adopt it?”
According to Trumka, Immelt replied: “We think that’s too political.”
Trumka recalled saying, “Adopting the president’s jobs bill is too political? What in it don’t you agree with? Tell me what it is you don’t agree with. What would be bad for jobs?”
The conversation moved on.
Obama has benefited from the relationships he has had with executives. Having never worked in the private sector, he is able to show that he can rely on the expertise of some of the country’s leading executives.
He has used his close relationship with Warren Buffett, one of the nation’s most prominent businessmen, to promote the White House’s plan to increase taxes on the wealthy. (Buffett’s Berkshire-Hathaway is the largest shareholder of The Washington Post Co.)
Obama also has been able to claim part of the credit — or at least share the stage — for major deals to sell U.S.-manufactured goods to foreign customers, supporting American jobs.
GE has been a beneficiary of a number of Obama administration policies — namely efforts to nurture a domestic clean energy industry. GE manufactures many technologies used in clean energy, such as wind turbines.
Immelt was welcomed into Obama’s inner circle at the beginning of the term, and he has made it clear that he won’t back any candidate in this election.
Still, overall, GE and its employees have moved from supporting Obama and the Democrats to Romney and the Republicans this year. In the 2008 cycle, GE employees gave Obama’s campaign $530,000 — five times the $102,000 that they gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). This time, the advantage has flipped.
Romney has taken in $135,450 from GE employees — four times the $38,032 that Obama has secured, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. GE’s political action committee also has given more to Republicans this year than Democrats. In 2010 and 2008, Democrats received more.
Boeing also has benefited in many ways from Obama’s tenure. The president has pushed to expand the Export-Import Bank, a government agency that makes relatively inexpensive loans available to foreign customers buying U.S. products. Boeing, by far, has been the biggest beneficiary of those loans, which foreign airlines use to buy the companies’ planes. His administration has worked to sell Boeing jets to commercial airlines and foreign militaries.
In February, Obama visited Boeing’s factory in Everett, Wash. The next month, he appeared before the Business Roundtable, which McNerney chairs, and declared: “I have to say that, given the number of planes that I’ve been selling around the world, I expect a gold watch upon my retirement.”
McNerney and the lobby haven’t been quite as effusive toward the president. The group, whose executive committee includes Immelt and Dimon, has clobbered the president with criticism.
This year, the Roundtable criticized Obama for using his executive powers to postpone construction of a U.S.-Canada oil pipeline that many say would create thousands of jobs and bolster the nation’s energy supply. The group also lashed out at Obama for a proposal to overhaul corporate taxation that it said would keep U.S. companies facing unusually high tax rates.
John Engler, the president of the Roundtable, said executives have been frustrated that so little has been accomplished on issues such taxes and regulation.
“There is a bottom-line, balance-sheet analysis that gets made by corporate leaders and it is this: Are we getting some of the biggest problems and challenges in America dealt with?” Engler said.
It is perhaps Dimon’s view of the White House that draws the sharpest contrast with the Obama administration’s attitude toward him. Dimon has visited the White House at least 18 times since 2009, according to a White House database, including at least one state dinner, and some inside the administration have in the past talked whimsically about him being a candidate for Treasury secretary.
After JPMorgan announced in May a surprise $2 billion in losses as a result of risky trading strategy based in London, Obama publicly praised the bank, calling Dimon “one of the smartest bankers we got.”
Dimon has been a major supporter of the Democratic caucus, giving more than $500,000 to Democrats over the past 20 years and $50,000 to Obama’s inaugural festivities, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Neither Dimon, McNerney nor Immelt has given campaign contributions directly to a presidential candidate this year. Dimon has just given to two Democrats and two Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who has said his job is to defeat Obama.
“I would call myself a barely Democrat, at this point,” Dimon said in May.