- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In an effort to thaw what has been a frosty relationship at time, President Obama told business leaders on Wednesday that he was open to cooperation — but made clear that it would be on his terms.

Mr. Obama said businesses need to get past ideological battles and stop exaggerating the effects of his new regulations, saying he’s trying to achieve not liberal or conservative government, but “smart” government.

“We have arrived at a juncture in our politics where reasonable efforts to update our regulations or make basic investments in our future are too often greeted with cries of ‘government takeover’ or even ‘socialism.’ Not only does that kind of rhetoric deny our history, but it prevents us from asking hard questions about the right balance between the private and public sectors,’” Mr. Obama said before the Business Roundtable, a consortium of CEOs from some of the nation’s top companies.

“Getting that balance right has less to do with big government or small government than it does smart government. It’s not about being anti-business or pro-government; it’s about being pro-growth and pro-jobs,” Mr. Obama argued.

Though he’s toned down his rhetoric in recent weeks, Mr. Obama has often been harsh in his remarks about big business, particularly banks, Wall Street firms and health insurers. He has decried large executive bonuses and proposed several new measures aimed at cracking down on financial firms, including a fee to collect some of the government’s investment in the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

As Mr. Obama has softened his tone, Democrats have faced new political realities. They lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and Wall Street firms have shifted their political contributions from Democrats toward Republicans in recent months, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiled data for the Washington Post.

Mr. Obama touted several of his initiatives to spur innovation, including making the research and development tax credit permanent, awarding federal grants to states that reform their education systems investing in clean energy facilities and creating the nation’s first high-speed rail network.

He also reiterated his push for increased international trade, promising to pursue a more “strategic and aggressive effort to open up new markets” for U.S. goods.

“I know that trade policy has been a longstanding devide between business and labor, Democrats and Republicans. But to those who would reflexively support any and every trade deal, I would say that our competitors have to play fair and our agreements have to be enforced,” he said. “At the same time, to those who would reflexively oppose every trade agreement, they need to know that if America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores.”

Assuring business leaders that he is an “ardent believer in the free market,” Mr. Obama said the success of the U.S. depends in large part on the success U.S. companies. But he stressed that the government has a vital role in fostering economic growth and defended his proposal to toughen regulation of the financial system, urging businesses to stop lobbying against it.

“My goal is not to punish Wall Street,” he said. “But if there aren’t rules in place to guard against the recklessness of a few and they’re allowed to exploit consumers and take on excessive risk, it starts a race to the bottom that results in all of us losing.”

On taxes, Mr. Obama defended his record, saying he has kept his promise to lower taxes for 95 percent of taxpayers while holding true to his call for the tax rates of wealthy Americans to return to pre-Bush levels.

“At a time of such economic angst, it is tempting and perhaps easier to turn against one another and find scapegoats to blame. Politicians can rail against Wall Street or against each other. Businesses can fault Capitol Hill. But it doesn’t solve our problems,” he said. “We will not always agree on every issue, we’re not going to support the same policies every time, but I will never stop listening to your concerns and your ideas.”

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