Rift between Obama and Chamber of Commerce widening

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The White House is moving aggressively to remove the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from its traditional Washington role as the chief representative for big business, the latest sign of a public feud ignited by disagreement over the administration's effort to overhaul the health-care system.

Instead of working through the Chamber, President Obama has reached out to business executives, meeting repeatedly with small groups of CEOs in his private White House dining room. He also has dispatched top aides Valerie Jarrett and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to corporate boardrooms. Since the summer, the three have met with some of the biggest names in the business community, including the heads of IBM, Wal-Mart Stores, Time Warner, Eastman Kodak, Starbucks, Amazon.com and Coca-Cola.

In the process, Obama is attempting to rewrite the rules of the game in Washington, where the Chamber and other business lobbying groups have long held a highly visible, and powerful, place at the intersection of policy and politics.

"The question we have is: Does the Chamber really represent the business community the way they used to?" said Jarrett, the president's chief business liaison. "It seems as though their members are disengaging."

Meanwhile, the Chamber is fighting back with its own public relations agenda, launching multimillion-dollar ad campaigns to resist several of Obama's top priorities. Passage of the president's plan could depend in part on how this battle plays out.

R. Bruce Josten, the Chamber's longtime lobbyist, said he has less real access to Obama's chief aides than he had during any previous administration. He said the business events Obama holds at the White House are just for show.

"Going to the Reagan center with 150 people, where the president gives prepared remarks -- I'm sorry, I don't consider that a consultative outreach," Josten said. "That's an event, designed by the White House, for the White House."

Quitting in protest

The quarrel obscures that the White House and the Chamber had a relatively warm relationship when Obama took office. Disagreements about a broad swath of the president's economic agenda soured relations, though.

The Chamber of Commerce was already embroiled in controversy over its opposition to climate change legislation. In recent weeks, high-profile businesses have quit the Chamber in protest of that position, most notably Apple Inc.

Chamber officials hint that they think the White House has been encouraging the defections. Jarrett denied that vehemently, saying, "They have to be responsible for their own membership, not us."

On Monday, climate change activists orchestrated a hoax in which Chamber officials appeared to reverse their opposition to energy legislation in Congress.

The event, complete with fake handouts on Chamber letterhead, at least a couple of phony reporters and a podium adorned with the Chamber logo, broke up when a spokesman from the real Chamber burst in.

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