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Obama charm offensive meets with chill
Corporate leaders gripe about regulations
Labeled anti-business by Republicans and some corporate chiefs, President Obama's charm offensive to improve his image in the boardroom and the nation's chambers of commerce has hit a rocky patch.
Business leaders gripe about burdensome new financial and health care regulations, as well as what they see as unfriendly tax policies and vast government spending. They were put off by Mr. Obama's harsh depiction of "fat-cat bankers" and "reckless practices," a label he applied both to Wall Street and to oil-spill giant BP.
Among the Obama business policy detractors: JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who supported Mr. Obama's presidential bid but actively opposed his just-passed financial regulation overhaul. Not surprisingly, Mr. Dimon was not on the 400-strong guest list for the bill signing.
White House aides dispute the charge that the administration has an anti-business bias, noting that corporate profits are up 65 percent from two years ago. "The stakes are too high for us to be working against each other," top presidential advisers Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett wrote to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Reaching out to big business, Mr. Obama named more than a dozen top CEOs to a presidential Export Council, revived a Bush administration free-trade pact with South Korea and stumped aggressively for cutting taxes and increasing loans for small businesses. But it is noticeable that not a single former corporate executive is in his Cabinet or among his top economic advisers.
Friday's dismal jobs report, showing unemployment stuck at 9.5 percent, further underscored the need for government and private sector cooperation to produce jobs.
Still, Mr. Obama has nurtured "an increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation," argues Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, chairman of the Business Roundtable. Thomas Donohue, who heads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sees a "cumulative job-killing impact of overregulation" under Mr. Obama.
"The truth is that not even the Franklin Roosevelt administration was as hostile to and ignorant about free enterprise as this administration is," declared magazine publisher and one-time GOP presidential contender Steve Forbes.
The theme has been picked up on Capitol Hill, where congressional Republicans put up a strong fight to block Mr. Obama's small-business jobs bill, even though small business is a traditional core GOP constituency. Republicans claimed the bill was a misguided use of taxpayer dollars and forced House Democratic leaders to interrupt the chamber's August recess to finally pass the bill Tuesday.
Mr. Obama expressed frustration that even his pro-business efforts sparked opposition and partisan fights.
"This should be as American as apple pie," the president told a Democratic fundraiser in Austin, Texas, on Monday.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky shot back in a statement, "For more than a year and a half, the president and his Democrat allies on Capitol Hill have pushed an antibusiness, anti-jobs agenda on the American people in the form of one massive government intrusion after another."
The current adversarial climate is being aggravated by November's midterm elections. Both parties recognize that job creation has not been strong enough to push down an unemployment rate long hovering near 10 percent. And both recognize the vital role to be played by small businesses, which account for two out of every three new jobs created.
The new financial overhaul law, potential new labor and environmental regulations, and the prospect of higher taxes irritated many financial and corporate leaders "and they've moved away from Obama," said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University.
Of course, not all business leaders are negative and many have offered words of support.
UPS Chief Executive Scott Davis said Mr. Obama's goal of doubled exports in five years would help "foster engagement in the global economy for small and large businesses." And Ford CEO Alan Mulally said Mr. Obama recognizes that "for exports to grow we must ensure that market access for manufactured goods remains at the center of U.S. trade policy."
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director who was 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain's top economic adviser, said some of Mr. Obama's economic overtures have merit, such as the push to double U.S. exports and the president's vow to move ahead on the South Korea trade agreement.
But, he said, "I think Republicans are going to be skeptical until they see real action." Mr. Holtz-Eakin said "the business community's dismay" with Mr. Obama is driven by a sense that "he's saying one thing and dead-set on doing another."
By John R. Bolton
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