To nobody's surprise expect possibly his own, the President has failed to win the "confidence of business," despite his elaborate efforts to cultivate that special community.
Carter, however, need not be too depressed, for business has seldom had much confidence in the federal government under any President, Democrat or Republican, at least not since the good old days of Calvin Coolidge, a chief executive who liked to say that "the business of American is business."
If the present man in the White House is pained over the grumbling that emerged from last week's meeting of the Business Council, composed of the nation's top industrialists and financiers, he ought to refresh himself on what many of these leaders said about his predecessors Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.
After succeeding Nixon, the first thing Ford did was to consult the tycoons about the economy. Their advice was "Don't rock the boat." He didn't, but when double-digit inflation and soaring unemployment ensued, angry howls were nonetheless heard from the business world.
It's a tough audience to please, as Nixon can also testify. Confidence in him plummeted in 1970 when he did little or nothing to cure rising prices and falling employment, but a year later business went into shock when Nixon suddenly devalued the dollar and imposed the first peacetime wage-price controls in U.S. history.
The reaction didn't bother Nixon noticeably for, like all GOP politicians, he knew that most businessmen would continue to vote Republican no matter what, just as the Democrats, except, perhaps, Carter, realize they won't get many business votes regardless of how hard they try to please.
A year after slamming on controls, Nixon was overwhelmingly reelected, carrying 49 states. Last year, Ford in his race against Carter got from business leaders an estimated 85.2 per cent of the vote despite the earlier professed lack of confidence in his administration.
There is nothing mysterious about the monolithic nature of the business community, since, as a recent Harvard Business Review study discloses, the members are nearly all cut from the same cloth. The findings, based on the backgrounds of 444 executives from 247 companies, show a "striking sameness" in family origins, sex, race, religion, politics, age and education. They were exclusively male and white and predominantly Protestant, Republican, of Estern origin, from relatively affluent families and educated at "one of a handful of select universities."
It may comfort Carter to know that two fellow Democrats, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, didn't win the plaudits of the business hierarchy, either, although their presidnecies produced high employment, low inflation and healthy profits and tax cuts for business.
Although Harry Truman balanced the budget, he still was a red flag to the business world, which relaxed when he was succeeded by Dwight Eishenhower. WHile the general was personally liked by the bankers and industrialists, he lost prestige because of his recurring recessions, his big spending and his then-record budgetary deficit.
So it is necessary to go back to the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover era to find a contented business community, one that called the economic shots until that black day in 1929 when the Great Boom collapsed into the Great Depression.
What does business want from the government today? Carter has been trying to find out inviting tycoons to the White House for their advice and by sending out members of his Cabinet to consult with them. Few, if any, fresh ideas have emerged.
The Business Council meeting was typified by vague generalities, such as the statement of Walter Wriston, chairman of Citicorp, that "the business community is looking for a believable,. . ."(whatever that is). Another executive said the President "ought to reaffirm his faith in the free-enterprise system."
Poor Carter has been reaffirming it almost daily since his inauguration. He has also tried to woo business by taking positions supposedly popular in the business world, such as rejecting controls, dropping the proposed incometax rebate and stressing his determination to balance the budget.
Is "business confidence" the real key to recovery? Arthur Okun, former White House economic adviser, says, "Businessmen don't hire anyone on the basis of whether they like the President. They follow the order book and the cash register." Experience would seem to bear him out.
There is at least one prominent corporate executive, John Debutts, chairman of AT&T, who does not think the administration is antibusiness, and he has called on fellow business leaders "to eschew the rhetorical excesses of some hard-line business spokesmen."
The hard-liners might also heed Edgar Bronfman, chairman of Seagrams, when he says: "If business were less self-serving, it would better understand that what is good for America is good for business, and not always the other way around."
"There will always be tension between government and business," he adds, "just as there is between a free press and the government." Quite so.