When President Obama makes the short trip Monday from the White House to the ornate Hall of Flags at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, it will reflect a rapprochement of sorts in a testy relationship between the Democratic president and the nation’s most powerful business lobby.
During the first two years of his presidency, Obama fought the chamber on some of the most visible issues on his domestic agenda, including healthcare and tighter regulation of the financial services industry.
But since the devastating losses in November’s congressional election, Obama has begun a studied post-election pivot that has moved the White House closer to business and further from traditional allies in organized labor.
His visit to the chamber’s headquarters, a massive, Greek-temple-style edifice across from the White House, is the latest example of a shift in rhetoric and action aimed at redefining the Obama presidency in the mind of the public — and business-oriented donors who supported Obama’s candidacy but became alienated during his first year in office.
Obama will be welcomed by Chief Executive Tom Donohue, who just a few months ago accused the White House of running a “smear campaign” against the organization.
The president is expected to remind the audience of areas where the White House has worked with the chamber — trade agreements, the auto bailout and early stimulus programs, the promotion of exports and initiatives to raise educational standards.
But he also will challenge businesses and the chamber. In his Saturday radio address, he foreshadowed his remarks.
“Supporting businesses with this kind of 21st century infrastructure and cutting-edge innovation is our responsibility,” Obama said. “But businesses have a responsibility too. If we make America the best place to do business, businesses should make their mark in America. They should set up shop here, and hire our workers, and pay decent wages, and invest in the future of this nation. That’s their obligation.”
As in his recent State of the Union address, Obama is expected to stand firm on certain topics, including his determination to implement most, if not all, of the healthcare overhaul passed last year.
The chamber still opposes the administration’s financial services legislation and key parts of its energy policy. Many chamber members, including some chief executives and lobbyists who will be in the audience Monday, also remain wary of Obama. Some in the financial services sector recall the president’s 2009 television interview when he said he “did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street.”
In 2010, many investment house executives, irritated by such rhetoric and bitterly opposed to the president on financial services regulation, shifted contributions from Democrats to Republicans.
Chamber officials vowed to spend up to $70 million to set “a new tone” in Washington and worked successfully to help elect scores of Republican congressional candidates.
Obama has since taken steps that draw nods of approval from business lobbyists.
The president suggested in last month’s State of the Union address that he might yield to one chamber criticism of the healthcare law: relieving small businesses of new tax reporting requirements.
“We took that as a very positive sign that they were looking for common ground,” said Thomas Collamore, senior vice president for communications and strategy at the chamber. He noted a series of other signals that the administration was changing its approach.
The most significant occurred during the lame-duck session of Congress when the White House supported extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. The administration earned further approval from business when it froze wages for federal employees and, more recently, ordered a review of federal regulations.
In addition, the president has made three top-level appointments that pleased the chamber and other business groups. Most notable was naming William Daley as White House chief of staff. Daley, a former executive with JPMorgan Chase & Co., was actively involved with the chamber’s financial services initiatives in the past.
The chamber also praised the appointment of Gene Sperling as chairman of the National Economic Council and Jeffrey Immelt, the Republican chief executive of General Electric Co., as chairman of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Already Donohue and Sperling have had lunch.
At their private meeting, one person familiar with the discussion said, Donohue told Sperling that he was comfortable sparring with the White House in the morning and working constructively in the afternoon.
Sperling has also reached out to labor leaders. They have backed the administration’s jobs agenda, but they are not feeling buoyant.
The unions, already unhappy with the federal wage freeze, saw further cause for concern when the Democratic National Committee announced that the 2012 presidential nominating convention would take place in North Carolina, where few hotels are unionized.
Far more significant, Obama’s shift toward business and the unions’ loss of clout can be seen in the administration’s renewed push on free trade — especially for the Korea Free Trade Agreement, the largest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement, which knocked down barriers between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Though some unions support the new pact, the AFL-CIO and some Democrats oppose it.
Yet Obama has lined up closer to business than labor on the issue. “It will contribute significantly to achieving my goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years,” Obama said in announcing the deal with South Korea in December. His sentiments echo those expressed by the chamber’s Donohue in speeches over the last several years.
And Donohue worked personally with top administration officials in the final weeks of negotiation on the Korea deal.
If labor leaders are feeling fractured and frustrated by Obama, business advocates are lightening up.
“The rhetoric has toned down and we are pleased to see him appoint people with business experience to leadership roles,” said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents major Wall Street interests.
“The easing of the rhetoric makes it easier to work together,” he said.