Chamber Games: Obama Asks Business to Step Up
Business + Economy

Chamber Games: Obama Asks Business to Step Up

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

At times, President Obama and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been miles away from a cooperative relationship. But Monday, the president took the short walk from the White House across Lafayette Park to the trade organization’s headquarters and implored executives to share responsibility for improving education, fostering innovation and building infrastructure.

Obama’s speech to the Chamber marks the latest in a series of administration efforts to mend fractured ties with a business community that is still bothered by the passage of the financial regulatory reform bill and the health care law. The president defended government regulations, while acknowledging some as too burdensome. He also said that though he was open to improving the health care law, he stands by the law’s bottom line. 
The crux of the visit, however, was to repair, rebuild and advance relations with the business community. The president asked businesses to “get in the game” and invest some of the $2 trillion on their balance sheets to jump-start job creation.

‘Grow and Innovate’
With the requests, the president affirmed his support for some initiatives that are important to the business community, like changes to the corporate tax code, which at 35 percent is the highest of all developed nations, with the exception of Japan. Obama also signaled that he’s willing to review and change certain government regulations after acknowledging in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that certain government restrictions thrust “unreasonable burdens on business – burdens that have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs." 

“As a government, we will help lay the foundation for you to grow and innovate,” Obama said.  “We will upgrade our transportation and communications networks so you can move goods and information more quickly and cheaply. We will invest in education so you can hire the most skilled and talented workers in the world. And we’ll knock down barriers that make it harder for you to compete, from the tax code to the regulatory system.”

The shifting pro-business tone is widely interpreted as an administration maneuver to woo moderate voters and some business fundraisers as Obama begins his 2012 re-election campaign. “It’s pretty clear that he was really shaken, and his team was really shaken, by how much the business community contributed toward his party’s defeat in November,” said GOP strategist Glen Bolger, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a national political survey research firm. “So I do give him credit: Instead of deciding to double down on going to war against the business community, he has decided to see if he can call a truce.”

The administration began bridge-building in December, when it welcomed a group of the country’s top 20 business leaders to the White House, and lightly nudged them to direct the nearly $2 trillion lying idle on company balance sheets toward job creation.  

Last month, Obama recruited General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead a new White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which meets for the first time on Feb. 24. Immelt joined William Daley, Obama’s new chief of staff, as the latest business friendly leaders to be brought into high-ranking positions in the White House. 

But the White House is still on thin ice after Obama repeatedly called bankers “fat cats” during the financial overhaul debate and portrayed the health insurance industry as a villain while pushing to overhaul health care. And just four months ago, the Obama administration accused the Chamber of using money from foreign donors to finance GOP candidates in the midterm elections—a charge the Chamber fiercely disputed and said was a sign of Democratic desperation. The Chamber did, however, spend more than $32 million in the lead up to the elections on ads, which mostly targeted Democrats for their votes on health care and financial reform. 

“Let me … reaffirm the American business community’s absolute commitment to working with you [President Obama] and your administration to advance our shared objectives,” said Chamber President Thomas Donohue in his opening remarks Monday. “First and foremost is the compelling need to strengthen our free enterprise economy, create jobs, and put Americans back to work. Our focus is finding a common ground to assure America’s greatness in the 21st century.”

Related Links:
AFL-CIO: We liked Obama’s challenge to Chamber of Commerce (The Washington Post)
Chamber of Commerce: Obama boosts business in chamber speech (Los Angeles Times)
‘Get in the Game:’ President Obama Implores U.S. Businesses to Invest in Job Creation (ABC News)