U.S. Chamber of Commerce, White House at odds

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; 6:42 PM

The fragile detente between the White House and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce appears to have crumbled.

Relations have soured so much, the White House says, that the chamber rejected its request for a speaking slot for senior adviser Valerie Jarrett at the chamber's job-promotion conference Wednesday.

"We would have loved to have gone and participated," Jarrett told Bloomberg News on Wednesday morning. "We were not invited. In fact, we were told not to come."

Chamber officials tell the story differently. A senior executive at the business group says Jarrett's office called Tuesday afternoon and demanded a speaking slot immediately after remarks from chamber chief executive Tom Donohue.

"Our answer to that was 'no, thank you,' " said chamber Senior Vice President Tom Collamore. "We're happy to have ongoing dialogue. We embrace it. . . . But I'm a little disappointed that their major reaction today is to be complaining about not being able to be shoehorned into the schedule at the last minute."

The spat between the White House and the nation's most well-known business group is the latest since the chamber assumed a highly adversarial approach to the Obama administration's policies months after he took office.

Wednesday's back-and-forth played out even as chamber officials offered a series of rhetorical broadsides against the administration, with the group's chairman saying the president and his allies in Congress are responsible for a "general attack on our free enterprise system."

In an open letter, the group accused the Obama administration of not making job creation a priority: "Instead of continuing their partnership with the business community and embracing proven ideas for job creation, they vilified industries while embarking on an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits, and job-destroying regulations."

That prompted an immediate response from Jarrett and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who wrote in a letter that they were "surprised and disappointed at the rhetoric we have heard from some in the business community -- rhetoric that fails to acknowledge the important steps this Administration has taken every single day to meet our shared objectives."

White House officials choreographed a competing set of images for President Obama on Wednesday, having him meet separately with famed investor Warren Buffett and, later, with Bill Clinton and a group of business executives.

Obama aides said the business meetings were a coincidence, and not intended to serve as a counter to the chamber event. They said the meeting with Buffett had been in the works for a long time.

"He wanted to come in and see the president, and you don't turn down the opportunity to talk to Warren Buffett," said press secretary Robert Gibbs.

With the midterm elections looming and polls showing Americans expressing a lack of confidence in Obama's handling of the economy, White House officials are eager to demonstrate that their policies are helping -- not hurting -- the prospects for job growth.

But business groups like the chamber have increasingly soured on the president as he has pushed his stimulus spending, health-care overhaul and Wall Street regulation.

A year ago, after initially supporting Obama's push for the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the chamber became one of the administration's most aggressive opponents of the health-care overhaul, and later attacked the administration's approach to new regulations for the financial industry.

That led to a war of words between Emanuel, Jarrett and Donohue. At one point, a senior U.S. Treasury official ended up giving a finger-wagging lecture to business executives at a chamber event after being promoted as the featured speaker.

But relations eventually thawed. Last month, the chamber hosted Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a business event during the Russian leader's visit to Washington.

"Things have gotten much better," one chamber executive said. "We're not making it personal. It's about the entire policy making mixture here in Washington."

But Obama administration officials are -- not surprisingly -- taking it personally. The open letter from the chamber takes direct aim at the central economic argument of the Obama administration's first two years: that it is doing everything it can to put Americans back to work after a devastating recession.

"No matter how well intentioned or politically popular a proposed law or regulation appears, the question must always be asked, What will the impact be on jobs?" the chamber letter says. "We fear that this consideration is routinely ignored in the halls of our government today. American workers and those who are struggling to keep them employed deserve better."

In her response on Bloomberg, Jarrett tried to play down the differences with the chamber and business.

"When you get behind the rhetoric, we are working well together," she said. "The economy is back on track. We still have a long way to go."

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