Obama reaches out to business leaders
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 7:28 PM
The Republicans in Congress aren't the only people the White House is trying to make peace with. President Obama will meet Wednesday with a group of 20 chief executives, including the heads of American Express, Google and UBS, as he continues a persistent but at times unsuccessful effort to win the business community's trust.
Administration aides emphasized the meeting is part of its ongoing relations with the business community and not a postelection public relations move for Obama. The session will be closed-doors at the Blair House across the street from the White House and is not expected to conclude with any sort of dÃ©tente between the two sides.
But the meeting comes after an election in which Republicans won control of the House and made gains in the Senate with the heavy financial assistance of business interests opposed to Obama's agenda, particularly the Chamber of Commerce, which spent more than $30 million in elections around the country, nearly all in support of GOP candidates.
Relations at times between the two sides have been tense; some executives say Obama's agenda has caused uncertainty that makes them reluctant to hire new workers and that the president unfairly bashes big business.
The administration chafes at such criticisms as U.S. companies recorded their largest-ever profits from July to September of this year.
"There are a series of issues that are important to the business community, that are important to getting our economy moving again, and I think those are issues that the President is eager to work on," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. Among the agenda items for Wednesday are trade, deficit reduction and American competitiveness.
Some executives, however, have grown skeptical of these repeated overtures by the White House, which has opted to reach out directly to chief executives, rather than work through trade groups such as the chamber.
Michael Morris, chief executive of American Electric Power, attended an event at the White House with other chief executives in February and thought the president listened carefully - but then didn't act.
Morris said businesses are still confused about what new regulations mean for their industries.
"We're hoping. We're hoping," said Morris, who was invited to attend tomorrow but won't be at the summit. "So we're ready to restart and see. But I think for many of us it will be a short window, and if there's very little reaction or very little change, then I think you sit back, and say, 'Same place, just a bit of a different tone.' "
Obama has conceded he may not have effectively courted business leaders.
"One of the things that I think has not been managed by me as well as it needed to be was finding the right balance in making sure that businesses have rules of the road and are treating customers fairly . . . but also making absolutely clear that the only way America succeeds is if businesses are succeeding," Obama said in comments immediately after the election.
As part of his outreach to corporate America, Obama met with Walmart's chief executive last month and is considering speaking at a chamber event. He also met Tuesday with two of his allies in the business community, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. (Buffet is a Washington Post Co. board member.) And in its search for a new head of the National Economic Council to replace the outgoing Lawrence Summers, the administration has actively looked for someone who has run a company before, reflecting the concern in the business community that the Obama economic team is too dominated by academics.
The administration's relations with companies might improve over the next two years because many of the issues the White House are advancing - tax cuts, increased funding and accountability in American's education system and attempts to grow the economy - aren't likely to find much resistance from corporate America.
In contrast, the first half of Obama's term was defined by two landmark measures, health-care legislation and financial regulatory reform, which generated significant opposition from businesses.
"Moving forward, we see an alignment of interests between the business community and the administration on the objective of growing our economy, said senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is heavily involved in the administration's outreach to business.
Still, Obama is facing pressure from many Democrats who want to sharpen the rhetoric against Wall Street and other businesses as unemployment remains high despite large profits for companies. And the administration's plans to reform the tax code, which may include cutting certain industry tax breaks, are sure to meet resistance from lobbyists.
The administration has been trying to encourage businesses to start spending the $1.9 trillion in cash they are holding on their balance sheets to stimulate the economy. And there are signs that companies may soon open their wallets. A new survey released Tuesday by the industry group Business Roundtable shows that 45 percent of top executives expect to add to their payrolls, the highest percentage ever reported since the group began the survey in 2002.
In his entreaties to businesses, Obama faces competition from Republicans who traditionally have represented the interests of corporate America more consistently.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio.), who will become Speaker in January, came to a closed-door meeting of 80 chief executive members of the Business Roundtable last week and praised their "Roadmap for Growth" as a "very good plan," as first reported by Politico.
And he emphasized his support for keeping in place current tax rates for income over $250,000 a year and trying to prevent the federal government from increasing regulations on businesses.
"The mountains of regulations and new restrictions being proposed and considered by this administration do one thing: kill jobs," he told the group, according to a source familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.