America's chief executives have found an increasingly loud political voice in recent months, sounding off in unusually collective fashion about the Trump administration's travel ban, its plan to back out of the Paris climate accord and the president's equivocal remarks following the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va. Thirty of the country's most high-profile CEOs wrote a letter trying to persuade Trump to not withdraw from the Paris agreement earlier this year, while two business advisory councils that included more than three dozen powerful CEOs disbanded in recent weeks.
Now perhaps the largest group of corporate chieftains yet, across a range of industries, have coalesced against the Trump administration's decision to phase out an Obama-era program that lets younger undocumented immigrants continue working in the United States without fear of deportation. And this time, they're doing it at the very moment when the administration's efforts at tax reform, long on the wish list of these same CEOs, have kicked into high gear.
"You would think business would bury their concerns for the moment because the big, 800-pound gorilla they all want to focus on is the corporate tax rate," said Michael Useem, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Yet "maybe there is an emergent sense that it’s not as risky to speak for other issues that are of direct, vexing concern at the same time. It has become safer to be outspoken than in the past, when it was 'go for number one, and keep your mouth shut on [priorities] number two or three.' "
More than 400 business leaders signed a letter or have urged Trump and Congress to protect the "Dreamers," or immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, including the CEOs of Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Best Buy, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase. Many have also made public statements against the policy change. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for instance, tweeted Sunday that “250 of my Apple coworkers are #Dreamers. I stand with them. They deserve our respect as equals and a solution rooted in American values."
Many tech leaders spoke out following the news Tuesday that it planned to unwind the program while offering a partial delay to give Congress a chance to take action. "This is a sad day for our country," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerbeg said in a statement. "The decision to end DACA is not just wrong. It is particularly cruel to offer young people the American Dream, encourage them to come out of the shadows and trust our government, and then punish them for it."
Business leadership experts said CEOs' remarks on the DACA decision are not surprising, despite the other priorities on the table.
For one, having done it before makes it easier to do again -- and there is safety in numbers. "People are no longer fearful that a Twitter post is going to lead to actual retribution," said Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic and a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School. "I don't think they fear this president," he said. "A lot of the attacks on Twitter have not been followed by policy changes."
If anything, said Jeff Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean at Yale School of Management, it's becoming more of the norm to speak out against the administration's policies than for CEOs to bite their tongue. "I think the fear has largely dissipated unless you’re a major government contractor," he said. "The idea of bullying -- that’s no longer creating fear of consumer backlash. It’s almost becoming a badge of honor."
Another reason CEOs seem less wary to speak up about the issue is that other Republican lawmakers seem to side with their views. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he didn't think Trump should end DACA before Congress acts, though called Obama's approach an "overreach." Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has said he didn't think Trump should rescind the program, and other Republicans have spoken out on the issue.
"Many congressional Republicans who will be their allies on corporate tax reform are sympathetic" to the CEOs' positions on DACA, said Aaron Chatterji, a professor at Duke University's business school who studies CEO activism on political and social issues. "They're in good company, so I don't think coming out strongly on this will complicate those efforts," he said.
Meanwhile, even if public letters arguing against policy haven't shifted Trump's views in the past -- for instance, he still announced a plan to withdraw from the climate accord, despite opposition from the business world -- such efforts don't have an audience of one.
"CEO activism is not just about changing a president or a governor’s mind," Chatterji said. "It’s also about sending a message of where you stand to your employees and your customers -- and in this case the legislative body who’s going to consider the fate of the immigrants."
Another audience -- shareholders -- don't appear to be too concerned about the increased outspokenness. "Shareholders tend to be politically very neutral," George said. "They also recognize there's a disconnect between what the president is saying publicly in a tweet and what policies are formulating."
Then, of course, there's the fact that the White House needs a big legislative win. "They're going to welcome their corporate allies," Chatterji said. "No one wants to blow up tax reform to spite Corporate America."