Obama town hall focuses on the question: Is the president anti-business?

President Obama spoke to a small group at a couple's home in Fairfax, Virginia on Monday, Sept. 13, 2010.
By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 5:27 PM

Is President Obama too cozy with Wall Street or too hard on it? That was the fundamental question he sought to answer Monday in an hour-long town hall meeting sponsored by CNBC, the financial news cable network.

Moderator John Harwood, CNBC's chief Washington correspondent, asked early on whether Obama is "vilifying business."

"Absolutely not," the president said.

"Look, let's look at the track record here," he said. "When I came into office, businesses - some of the same commentators who are on CNBC - were crying, 'Do something!' because, as a consequence of reckless decisions that had been made, the economy was on the verge of collapse. Those same businesses now are profitable; the financial markets are stabilized."

Throughout the meeting, Obama pushed back against the idea that his record on health-care reform, financial regulation and intervention in the automobile business has hurt the markets and the business community. He said that Wall Street is thriving, pointing out billion-dollar bonuses, and that the auto sector has been revived.

Although he skipped some of the more populist rhetoric he has used about Wall Street, he didn't let up in his support for allowing George W. Bush administration tax cuts for the wealthy to expire. Business leaders, Republicans and moderate Democrats have been against any tax increases, saying the economic recovery is too fragile.

"What the Republicans are proposing is that we . . . provide tax relief to primarily millionaires and billionaires. It would cost us $700 billion to do it. On average, millionaires would get a check of $100,000," he said. "And, by the way, I would be helped by this, so I just want to be clear. You know, I'm speaking against my own financial interests. It is an irresponsible thing for us to do. Those folks are the least likely to spend it."

That line drew applause from the audience of about 200 or so gathered at the Newseum in Washington, but it probably won't fare as well on Wall Street. One investor at the forum, Anthony Scaramucci, said the administration has been "whacking at Wall Street."

Obama said he has tried to strike a balance between being pro-business and being practical.

"I think most people on Main Street believe they've gotten beat up on, and I think there is a big chunk of the country that thinks that I have been too soft on Wall Street. . . . What I've tried to do is just be practical," he said. "If you are making a billion dollars a year where 8 million people lost their jobs and small businesses can't get loans, you shouldn't be feeling put upon."

Yet Obama has not been able to shake the big-government, anti-business label, despite recent outreach by the White House to top business executives. A recent Forbes cover story, for instance, cast the president as hostile to private enterprise.

Harwood asked Obama if he would have a Clinton moment and declare the end of big government.

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