Obama visit to Chamber of Commerce could mark thaw with business leaders

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 9:25 PM

The White House's campaign to rebuild ties with corporate America gets the ultimate photo opportunity Monday when President Obama crosses Lafayette Park and steps into the imposing headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The gesture may surprise Americans who recall that Obama, just four months ago, said the group may have used foreign money to air ads attacking Democrats, or that a senior aide called the Chamber's political tactics a "threat to our democracy."

And the applause certain to fill the ornate Hall of Flags inside the cavernous Chamber building might seem jarring given the tens of millions of dollars the group spent to fight Obama's signature health-care overhaul and deliver the House majority to the Republicans.

Both sides are eager to show a new era of warm feelings, with the Chamber in need of bipartisan bona fides and Obama seeking credibility with centrist voters and corporate donors as he ramps up his reelection campaign.

But Monday is also likely to show that tensions remain close to the surface.

Obama, even as he calls for cooperation on a range of issues such as revamping the corporate tax code, passing a South Korea free-trade deal and fixing the nation's schools, will reiterate his defense of the new restrictions on insurance companies that make up the core of the health-care law that the Chamber wants repealed. And he will implore corporations to spend the profits that many are stockpiling.

Previewing his Chamber remarks in his Saturday radio address, Obama said he will tell company executives that they have an "obligation" to "hire our workers, and pay decent wages, and invest in the future of this nation."

Chamber officials, meanwhile, say that they still expect their campaign spending next year to exceed the group's $50 million budget of 2010. They say their organization does not get involved in presidential politics. If spending follows the 2010 model, however, it will go almost entirely toward helping the GOP extend its House margin and possibly win control of the Senate. That effort could have the additional effect of mobilizing Republican voters in presidential battlegrounds such as Florida and Virginia, which are expected to have competitive Senate races.

"The Chamber's going to continue to make judgments on an issue-by-issue basis on what we think is best for the business community, and we're not going to make trade-offs based on feel-good opportunities," said Thomas J. Collamore, a Chamber spokesman.

The dynamic was evident last month, when Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue delivered his State of American Business address from the same stage where Obama will speak Monday. Donohue noted a "new tone" from the White House but skewered the health-care law and a series of new greenhouse gas limits as bad for business.

"Uncertainty among companies, lenders and investors still abounds," Donohue said. "There are many unanswered questions about regulations, taxes and other policies that must be addressed in order to unleash aggressive hiring by the private sector."

It is not clear that Obama's remarks Monday will answer many of those questions to Donohue's satisfaction.

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