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The socialist president plays host to capitalism

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Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- James McNerney, chief executive officer of Boeing Co., talks about today's meeting between President Barack Obama and and 20 company executives in efforts to accelerate the U.S. economic recovery. McNerney, speaking with Betty Liu on Bloomberg Television's "Bottom Line," also discusses Boeing's plan to hire "four or five thousand people" in 2011 because of export growth. (Source: Bloomberg)

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 5:51 PM

The titans of American industry were all assembled at the White House complex Wednesday. There was Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google. There was Kenneth Chenault, the chairman of American Express. And there was Barack Obama, the sometimes owner of General Motors, Chrysler, Citibank, Bank of America, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

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The president's advance team handled it like a state visit. The Secret Service shut down Lafayette Square as the CEOs huddled inside Blair House -- where foreign dignitaries often stay. The U.S. Park Police were mounted, the presidential limousines were idling, and men with scary-looking weapons stood in the shrubbery. The only thing missing was the display of the visitors' flag -- in this case, the dollar sign -- from the lampposts.

It looked like a state visit because it was a state visit, in the sense that President Obama was hosting leaders who are, to his administration, very foreign. The land's leading capitalists were sitting down with a leader caricatured by many Republicans as a socialist, or even, in Newt Gingrich's view, a Kenyan anti-colonialist.

"Chilly out here, guys!" the president said with a friendly wave as he crossed the street from the White House to Blair House.

Chilly outside? Wait until you're in a room with all those CEOs.

"Mr. President!" bellowed CNBC's John Harwood from the press risers on the north lawn. "Can you repair your relationship with business?"

"It's chilly out here," Obama repeated.

Harwood, live on the air, did not know quite what to do with this answer. Off camera, a producer's voice prompted him: "Go, John. Keep talking."

"You see that the president is not in a mood to answer questions today," Harwood continued gamely. "He said, 'It's a little chilly out here,' when I tried to get him to say something."

The president was not about to answer questions because he didn't want to do anything to upset the choreography of the day. It was a chance for Obama to show, in contrast to the perception that many voters had last month, that he is a big fan of the free market and private industry. And it was a chance to have a mostly friendly crowd of CEOs (there wasn't an oil man or a health-insurance boss among them) validate Obama's pro-business bona fides.

Obama has a long climb to overcome the reputation that he is hostile to business; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, inflamed by health-care reform and Obama's climate-change policy, is on record accusing him of a "general attack on our free enterprise system." But on Wednesday, he began to implement his pro-business business plan.

Before walking to meet the 20 corporate chiefs, Obama delivered a speech that, in the space of just four minutes, included seven mentions of jobs, six of growth or growing, and two of hiring. "Spurring economic growth is what I'll talk about later this morning when I meet with some of America's top business leaders," the president said. (READ: I am a capitalist!) "That includes Jim McNerney of Boeing, who also heads up my Export Council, and several members of my Economic Recovery Advisory Board." (READ: Some of my best friends are capitalists!)


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