President Obama on Monday offered an olive branch — and a lecture — to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying they can find common ground on expanding trade and cutting regulations, but also telling top business leaders that they have to "get in the game" by investing sidelined cash and hiring workers.
"Now is the time to invest in America," Mr. Obama said, adding that U.S. companies have nearly $2 trillion sitting idle on their balance sheets. "Demand has risen more slowly than any of us would like. We're in this together. But many of your own economists and sales people are now forecasting a healthy increase in demand, so I just want to encourage you to get in the game."
Mr. Obama touted his administration's recent breakthrough on a free-trade agreement with South Korea and a review of burdensome regulations as evidence of his commitment to help businesses flourish. He also cited government investments in clean energy technologies and promised new spending on infrastructure upgrades.
The president's address to an organization that spent as much as $75 million to steamroll his party at the polls in November is seen as a postelection detente driven by political necessity. Republicans now control the House, and Mr. Obama needs to recapture the support of independent voters ahead of his own presumed re-election bid.
Though the Chamber of Commerce has been a stalwart opponent of many of the president's top priorities — including the health care and financial overhauls as well as the effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions — it has supported Mr. Obama on other occasions, such as the $814 billion stimulus package.
More recently, the group applauded a White House push for infrastructure spending, releasing a rare joint statement with the AFL-CIO in support of the initiative. The chamber also praised Mr. Obama's selection of former J.P. MorganChase executive William Daley, a moderate and a commerce secretary under President Clinton, as his chief of staff.
While Mr. Obama may have extended a hand, he stopped far short of waving a white flag of surrender. He argued that his health care law makes the country more competitive and warned that "the perils of too much regulation are matched by the dangers of too little."
Mr. Obama also criticized the "culture" that preceded the recession, saying the money that businesses save from fewer regulations and lower taxes must be dispersed.
"If we're fighting to reform the tax code and increase exports to help you compete, the benefits can't just translate into greater profits and bonuses for those at the top," he said. "We cannot go back to the kind of economy — and culture — we saw in the years leading up to the recession, where growth and gains in productivity just didn't translate into rising incomes and opportunity for the middle class."
While the president drew applause on several occasions, Republicans shrugged off the address as empty rhetoric, arguing that if Mr. Obama were serious about creating jobs he would curb his push for more federal spending.
"Instead of committing to much-needed spending cuts and reforms, President Obama has urged Congress to raise the debt limit and pass more ineffective 'stimulus' spending disguised as 'investment,'" House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said in a statement. "It's clear from his policies that President Obama isn't as interested in winning the future as he is in rigging it for big government."
Mr. Obama encountered skepticism from the other end of the political spectrum as well. Ahead of the event, liberal groups expressed doubt that Mr. Obama could bury the hatchet with the business lobby, which they accuse of being part of the "ideological right."
"The president cannot make peace with a chamber committed to opposing every reform vital for the nation's economy," said Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future. "But he can use this visit not to pander to the chamber, but to challenge it — challenging it to represent the companies that are its members, not the ideologues that have been its allies."
Mr. Obama first hinted at a desire to mend fences with business in a postelection news conference, conceding that he hasn't always "managed" his relationship with the community as well as he should have.
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