Recently, I wrote about attending a conference of medical-industry types in which Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric and chairman of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, spoke to an audience made up of his Obama-skeptic colleagues. Immelt, somewhat surprisingly, made no move to defend the president who appointed him. “Our job,” he told the assembled crowd, “is to make our ideas his ideas.”
The Council on Jobs and Competitiveness is the Obama administration’s answer to the charge that it doesn’t listen to the business community. It includes not just Immelt but executives from Xerox, DuPont, American Express, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, TIAA-CREF, Southwest Airlines, Procter & Gamble, Boeing, Intel, Citigroup, Eastman Kodak, Facebook, Comcast, BNSF Railway and UBS Investment Bank. And today it released its interim report (PDF).
This is, in other words, the big moment: This is the business community trying to make its ideas President Obama’s ideas. But here’s the thing: Its ideas don’t seem to differ much from Obama’s ideas.
The report proposes “five common-sense initiatives to boost jobs and competitiveness.” Initiative No. 1 is more infrastructure and energy investment. The White House would happily check that box. Initiative No. 2 is a grab bag of proposals to help “high-growth enterprises,” ranging from more visas for skilled immigrants to patent reform, to amending Sarbanes-Oxley to make it easier to go public, to tax changes to make it more appealing to invest in start-ups. Then there’s the “National Investment Initiative,” which might as well be called “winning the future.” Fourth on the list is streamlining regulations. And then there’s worker retraining, educating more engineers and a second high-five for high-skills immigration.
I’m sure if you dug into the details of the policies on this list, you would find items the administration doesn’t support. Perhaps the business community would deregulate beyond White House regulatory chief Cass Sunstein’s comfort level, for instance. But all in all, you could lift most of these items out of Obama’s speeches. Judging from this report, business leaders’ thinking is substantially his thinking already. Which makes sense: Like many of them, Obama is an Ivy-educated datahead who likes reading boring reports. But sitting with a group of CEOs, you would never know that. In those gatherings, he’s often presented as a naive Marxist who is one bad day away from trying to throw everyone with a corner office into jail.
Perhaps the distance is greater than this report suggests. Perhaps the CEOs have a much more dramatic agenda than they were willing to put on paper. But I haven’t seen much evidence for that view. Most business leaders I talk to would love to see something along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan pass, and at this point, so too would the White House.
Another possibility is that the gulf between the business community and the White House is more cultural and personal than it is substantive. Matt Yglesias had an interesting take on this last week. “A lot of what you have is . . . a kind of bitter feud between businessmen and the kids they went to college with who didn’t go on to become businessmen. What did they do instead? They became teachers or doctors or nurses or professors or lawyers or scientists or nonprofit workers. . . . The business coalition sees the service coalition as composed of useless moochers, and the service coalition sees the business coalition as greedy bastards.”
“If it were merely a clash of objective interests, it really wouldn’t be much of a clash,” Yglesias wrote. “A healthy business environment needs schools and hospitals and public infrastructure to backstop it, and nobody is made happy by a business cycle downturn. There’s tension at the margin, but it’s not a zero-sum world. Layered on top is, I think, a raw level of gut-level dislike — both kinds of people think the other kind of people are clueless about what really matters in life.”
Increasingly, I’m coming to agree with that analysis.