By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011;
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's main hall, where President Obama gave his I-love-business speech on Monday, displays the flags of Columbus, Cortes and Ponce de Leon. Inscribed on the beams overhead are messages such as:
Alexander the Great found India.
Xenophon crossed Asia Minor.
Peary reached the North Pole.
Now, 102 years after Cmdr. Peary's expedition, the Chamber can carve the name of another explorer:
Obama discovered corporate America.
"I strolled over from across the street," the president said of his trek from the White House across Lafayette Square to the Chamber's H Street palace. "And look, maybe if we had brought over a fruitcake when I first moved in, we would have gotten off to a better start."
When the laughter ended, Obama departed from his prepared text to add: "But I'm going to make up for it."
He sure is - and if the list of goodies he read out Monday is any indication, he would have found it easier to deliver the fruitcake.
Obama told the business lobby about the executives who have important roles in his administration: J.P. Morgan Chase's Bill Daley, GE's Jeff Immelt and AOL's Steve Case. "We need to make America the best place on Earth to do business," the president promised.
Let's get rid of those "outdated and unnecessary regulations," the onetime corporate scold said, and remove that "burdensome corporate tax code with one of the highest rates in the world."
The president boasted that his administration had slowed down environmental rulemaking and accelerated drug approvals. Rather than browbeat corporate America, as he did in his early days in office, he pleaded for more hiring with sports phrases such as "get off the sidelines" and "get in the game."
Even health-care reform, the bete noire of the business lobby, became, in Obama's telling, another assist to his corporate friends - funneling "$40 billion directly to small businesses" and saving "large employers anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 per family."
Chamber President Tom Donohue, whose organization once accused Obama of a "general attack on our free-enterprise system," was thrilled by the president's new friendliness. In his introduction of Obama, Donohue boasted that the speech was "one of the hottest tickets in town."
Liberals were rather less pleased that Obama was making nice to the group that spent tens of millions of unregulated dollars to defeat lawmakers who supported his agenda. "What America needs is not olive branches to giant corporations but controls over the companies that sank the economy," said Public Citizen.
It was already a bad day for liberals concerned about corporate power: The Huffington Post, a powerful voice on the left, had just agreed to be taken over by AOL. And here was Obama, as the liberal group Agenda Project put it, "fawning" over corporate evildoers.
"I will tell you: I will go anywhere, anytime to be a booster for American businesses, American workers and American products," Obama offered.
One person in the part of the room where Donohue was seated began to clap, and the rest of the crowd quickly joined in the applause.
"And I don't charge a commission," Obama ad-libbed.
Obama did try to remind the executives of their corporate responsibilities by suggesting to them that good behavior is in their own interests. "In the financial crisis," he said, "the absence of sound rules of the road - that wasn't good for business."
The president also made a gentle appeal for companies to spend some of the "nearly $2 trillion sitting on their balance sheets" to hire people.
These weren't commands but requests, appealing to the corporate leaders' sense of patriotism. "Ask yourselves what you can do to hire more American workers," he said.
Although his overtures were friendly, the audience was skeptical. Obama at times paused after what should have been applause lines, but the room was so quiet that the air could be heard coming out of the vents, as when he vowed to take "domestic discretionary spending down to the lowest share of our economy since Eisenhower was president." No applause. "That's a long time ago," he added. Again, nothing.
Still, there was much for the audience to like in his words: "reforming our patent system . . . bigger, permanent tax credit . . . knock down barriers that make it harder for you to compete . . . run the government a little bit more like you run your businesses . . . consolidate and reorganize the federal government . . . dramatically cutting down on the paperwork."
At the end, Obama put his own fight with corporate America into historical perspective. He recalled the "fractured" relationship Franklin Roosevelt had with business because of the New Deal, but said that they ultimately had "one of the most productive collaborations between the public and private sectors in American history."
True, but that took a world war. Now there is no such war - only a surrender.