Obama's olive branch to Big Business
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 8:12 PM
In recent weeks, President Obama has taken significant steps to try to repair his administration's frayed relationship with the business community.
He has renegotiated a free-trade treaty with South Korea and signalled that he intends to fight for its acceptance in Congress. Similar pacts with Panama and Colombia may not be far behind.
The White House has thrown its support behind a reform of the corporate tax code that could lower rates in exchange for elimination of tax preferences. And the recently passed tax deal with Republicans in Congress also extended, or included for the first time, a number of tax credits and deductions that were high on the business wish-list.
The new White House Chief of Staff, Bill Daley, has strong personal and professional ties to business - so much so that the appointment even got rave reviews from Tom Donohue, the pugnaciously partisan and ideological president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
At the National Economic Council, the new team has been charged with putting "competitiveness" at the top of its agenda, which ought to be music to the ears of business executives. Business executives also have been consulted on the administration's continuing efforts to prod China to alter its stubbornly mercantilist trade and economic policies, an effort that takes center stage again next week with the visit of President Hu Jintao.
And while the details are still being hammered out, the budget the president will submit next month is likely to reflect many of the politically difficult compromises laid out by a majority of his deficit reduction commission, including all of its business members.
These are more than just gestures - they represent substantive accommodation to the business community's stated priorities. By the unwritten rules of political reconciliation, they demand and deserve a similar response. The most obvious and effective would be a clear statement from the business lobby that it will not support Republicans in their effort to repeal last year's health reform legislation.
It is unimaginable that such an olive branch could be offered by the Chamber, which has invested so much political and reputational capital in repeal. But the initial offer could certainly come from the Business Roundtable, which represents the country's largest corporations. The Roundtable was an early backer of a bipartisan reform effort, along with the AARP and the Service Employees Union, and it never expressed outright opposition to the final legislation. Even now, the Roundtable's focus is on "trying to be helpful to make an imperfect bill better," according to Larry Burton, its executive director.
Another natural ally would be the National Business Group on Health, whose 300 corporate members provide health insurance to 50 million American workers, retirees and family members. President Helen Darling says that although her members are concerned the legislation doesn't go far enough in controlling health costs and improving quality, they understand the new system will be better than anything that would result from outright repeal.
By renouncing repeal, the business lobby could alter the political dynamic around health care. Repeal was never likely in any case, given continued Democratic control of the Senate and the prospect of a certain presidential veto. But by visibly siding with the president, the lobby would win favor at the White House while cutting the political legs out from under the repeal effort among moderate and independent voters whose concerns have always been more economic than ideological. Moreover, these business groups would put themselves in the ideal position to negotiate a modest package of legislative and regulatory "fixes" to the legislation with the White House and moderate Democrats in Congress.
Those fixes might include reasonable caps on punitive damages in medical malpractice suits, enhanced powers for Medicare to control spending and cost growth, a modest reduction in the scope (and thus the cost) of the minimum benefit package, and putting some sort of floor on Medicaid payment rates for doctors and hospitals to prevent "cost shifting" to private insurance plans.
Republicans, faced with the prospect of the near-certain failure of repeal, might welcome a compromise that would allow them to declare a partial victory over Obamacare. The president, meanwhile, might be glad to put the issue behind him and avoid an endless series of legislative, regulatory and judicial skirmishes over implementation of the law.
This is an ideal opportunity to test the good faith of a business community whose complaints about the Obama administration were overblown and more than a tad hypocritical. The president has assumed his share of the responsibility for the breakdown in relations and taken several significant steps toward detente, even at the cost of alienating his political base. Now it's time for those who claim to be business leaders to reciprocate - or reveal themselves to be the one-way-streeters that many had suspected.