IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obama seeks common ground with business

After two years of difficult relations with a powerful U.S. business lobby, President Barack Obama goes into the proverbial lion's den Monday to address the group directly and seek its support to boost the economy.
/ Source: Reuters

After two years of difficult relations with a powerful U.S. business lobby, President Barack Obama goes into the proverbial lion's den Monday to address the group directly and seek its support to boost the economy.

The Democratic president will speak to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as part of a renewed outreach to the corporate community that began after Republicans routed Democrats in last year's congressional elections.

The rift between the White House and the Chamber has been wide and the process of healing slow.

The business group balked at Obama's initiatives to revamp Wall Street regulation and overhaul the healthcare system and took umbrage at the president's sharp rhetoric on executive pay during the height of the financial crisis.

The White House, while irritated by the Chamber's opposition to policies it designed to help the economy, has sought to mend relations with less sharp presidential rhetoric and staffing choices that appeal to the business community.

Obama picked Bill Daley, formerly of JPMorgan Chase, to be his chief of staff and recently brought on General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt as his new top outside economic adviser. He also agreed on a tax deal with Republicans last year and has promoted initiatives to boost U.S. exports.

Obama, elected with the help of labor unions, is seeking to boost growth and reduce unemployment ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

The staffing moves are heartening to businesses, but neither side has declared a complete thaw in relations yet.

Tita Freeman, a vice president for communications at the Chamber, said the group hoped the president would give a solid commitment to moving forward with outstanding free trade agreements during the speech.

"We're optimistic, but what really counts is action, not words," she said about Obama's shift in the past few months.

"Tone will be critically important, and I think the tone has indeed changed and this is a new day. And we are really embracing this speech and this outreach by the White House," she said.

Shared responsibilities
A White House official said Obama would discuss "the shared responsibility we have to fulfill our obligation to help the economy prosper."

She said the next few months would offer "an opportunity for the administration to work together on key areas where we agree" with business on export promotion, education, investing, including clean energy and technology, and "taking a serious approach to our medium and long-term deficits."

David Spooner, a former assistant secretary of commerce for import administration, said it was an important signal that Obama was appearing before the chamber at all. Monday's speech will mark the first time Obama has addressed the group's membership, although he has attended events at its headquarters.

"I think what he says is less important that the fact that he's doing it at all," Spooner said. "It's obviously an important symbolic gesture."

Gene Sperling, Obama's new top economic adviser inside the White House, said he thought the relationship with the business community had grown stronger.

"I think it's part of an overall feeling of increased confidence that people see the president willing and able to work together to help get some things done that matter on the economy and jobs," he told reporters Friday.

Sperling called the Chamber's president, Tom Donohue, after taking the top economic job, the White House official said.

"Donohue invited him over for lunch and during the lunch he told him he was looking forward to working with someone he can argue with at 10 a.m. and work with at 2 p.m.," she said.