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President Obama appeals to business leaders for support of administration goals

By Steven Mufson and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; A06

Declaring himself an "ardent believer in the free market," President Obama tried to rally business leaders Wednesday to support the administration's goals of health-care reform, climate legislation and financial regulation.

In a speech to members of the Business Roundtable, Obama sought to strike a balance between his recent populist rhetoric -- aimed mainly against banks and the financial industry -- and an appeal to the business community to remember that their corporate interests and the country's broader economic interests are linked.

"You create the jobs," the president said at the St. Regis Hotel near the White House. "You develop new products and cutting-edge technologies. And you create the supply chains that make it possible for smaller businesses to open their doors. So I want everyone in this room to succeed. . . . Because I firmly believe that America's success in large part depends on your success."

He continued, "But I also believe this: Government has a vital, if limited, role to play in fostering sustained economic growth."

The president took no questions, but on Tuesday night, he had top executives over to the White House for a dinner of salad, pork and huckleberry pie. Among the guests were Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase, Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric, Ursula M. Burns of Xerox, Indra Nooyi of Pepsi, Antonio M. Perez of Eastman Kodak and Stephen Odland of Office Depot.

Four executives made presentations on topics including jobs, education, climate and energy, and taxes, according to people who attended.

"It was more of a listening opportunity for him than a speaking opportunity, and he did that," Michael G. Morris, chief executive of American Electric Power, a utility and the country's biggest producer of greenhouse gases, said of Obama. "We of course talked about health care, too, and we all had ideas to offer."

Also attending the dinner were Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and top economic advisers Lawrence H. Summers, Christina Romer and Austan Goolsbee.

The events were the latest of the occasional meetings Obama has had with business executives. Rarely has an administration taken on so many corporate interests at once; health-care, climate and financial legislation touches virtually every company. Many business groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have campaigned to block administration-backed initiatives. The Business Roundtable, by contrast, supported the administration's economic stimulus bill last year.

"Clearly this is an effort to reach out and have a dialogue," said one executive who attended Wednesday's speech but spoke on the condition of anonymity so his company would not be seen as criticizing Obama. He said the administration "needs to more fundamentally understand what makes business tick."

Said Carter Eskew, a partner in the Glover Park Group, a political and corporate consulting firm: "On most of these issues, there is no unanimity. The only unanimity is that people want predictability. The thing that's frustrating for the business community . . . is that a year in, things are still so in flux. That makes people anxious in boardrooms."

While senior administration officials routinely meet corporate executives, "it's very helpful to the president to go around and hear directly from people who run businesses," Jarrett said. The group Tuesday night included a cross-section of corporate leaders who are "actively competing on a global playing field," she said.

In his remarks Wednesday, Obama tried to step out of the usual divisions. "It's not about being anti-business or pro-government," he said. "It's about being pro-growth and pro-jobs." He complained that "it's been an easy political tactic to characterize any effort at health reform as a 'big government takeover.' "

In a push for the jobs bill, he described government's role as limited. "The steps we took last year were about saving the economy from collapse, not expanding government's reach into the economy," he said. "The jobs bill now working through Congress is similarly designed to be targeted and temporary."

Obama asked for support on financial reform. "The lobbyists up on the Hill right now are trying to kill reform by claiming that it would undermine businesses outside the financial sector. That isn't true," he said. "This is about putting in place rules that encourage drive and innovation instead of shortcuts and abuse. And those are rules that will benefit everybody."

American Electric Power executive Morris said he "walked out with a great feeling about America." But, he added, "I still have lot of issues on which I don't agree with him."

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