Obama, business leaders promise to work together on economy and relationship

By Perry Bacon Jr. and Jia Lynn Yang
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 12:47 AM

President Obama and businesses leaders pledged to work together to repair both the economy and their sometimes strained relationship in a nearly five-hour meeting Wednesday, continuing the president's post-election moves to ease tensions with groups that his administration has clashed with in its first two years.

In a session with 20 chief executives, including the heads of Google, General Electric and American Express, Obama - whose sharp rhetoric about pay on Wall Street has annoyed some executives - declared, "I want to dispel any notion we want to inhibit your success," according to a source in the room.

Obama's tone in the closed-door session, which covered trade, jobs and education, was similar to that of a meeting two weeks ago with congressional Republicans, during which the president promised to work closely with his political adversaries after Democrats were badly defeated in the November elections. Like the GOP, much of corporate America strongly opposed the financial-regulatory and health-care bills that dominated Obama's first two years, and businesses groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent millions of dollars supporting Republican congressional candidates.

"I feel very confident we made some good progress," Obama said in brief remarks after the meeting, which was held at Blair House, across the street from the White House.

Jim McNerney, president and chief executive of Boeing, said after the meeting, "We have a chance for a new beginning."

McNerney later told CNBC: "We all made our apologies and said we wanted to move on."

Obama discussed a range of issues with the business leaders, and the gathering reached consensus on such goals as expanding American exports, improving education and reducing the budget deficit. But in terms of specifics, no formal agreement was reached.

The president used the meeting to show that he wanted to reach out to businesses, but he did it in a setting that included several longtime allies, such as Penny Pritzker, the head of a Chicago-based real estate company.

Wednesday's meeting was also attended by some major Democratic donors, including John Doerr, a partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Doerr has made more than $1.7 million in political contributions in the past 20 years, the vast majority to Democrats, according to an analysis done by the Center for Responsive Politics for CNN.

The meeting was also notable for those executives who were not present.

No major U.S. bank executives came, even though the financial industry has had an especially rocky relationship with the White House after the passage of financial overhaul legislation and the president's criticism of "fat cat" bankers. The administration has tried to build a rapport with executives such as Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, neither of whom attended the meeting.

Also missing was Ivan Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon, who delivered a stinging speech in June, saying the president's policies hurt economic growth. Seidenberg, who is also chairman of the Business Roundtable, presented a "road map" last week of policies supported by the business community relating to taxes, trade and energy.

This week's meeting, unlike some others in the past two years, did not include a formal and public speech by Obama, a nod to business leaders who felt that he, at times, has done too much talking before the cameras and not enough listening to their concerns.

Instead, Obama solicited ideas from the executives on a host of issues, though he also pointedly asked what else they need to start hiring again.

American corporations had record profits in the third quarter of this year, but they have generally not accelerated hiring, leaving Obama to explain to a wary electorate why unemployment remains near 10 percent.

Companies have held record amounts of cash on the sidelines largely because consumer demand has been weak. There are signs, however, that Americans are picking up their spending. This week, the National Retail Federation issued a prediction that November and December sales will be up 3.3 percent from a year ago.

In a sign that business groups and the White House have found some common ground, the tax deal hatched by the president and Republican leaders, which was passed by the Senate on Wednesday, was hailed by both sides.

"By overwhelmingly supporting the bipartisan tax bill, the Senate sent an unmistakable message to the House today," said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber. "The House must swiftly pass this critical legislation, in its current form, to place the economy on a road to recovery. Failure to act could plunge the nation back into a recession and put even more Americans out of work."

The president is considering making an appearance next year in front of the Chamber, which has been one of his biggest adversaries.

baconp@washpost.com yangjl@washpost.com

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