- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2010

In an effort to thaw what has been a frosty relationship at times, President Obama told leaders of some of the nation’s biggest businesses Wednesday that he was ready to cooperate - but made clear that the cooperation would be on his terms.

Rejecting criticism that his agenda amounted to “socialism,” Mr. Obama said the business leaders needed to get past ideological battles and stop exaggerating the effects of his new regulations, arguing 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,’ ” Mr. Obama told members of the Business Roundtable, a consortium of CEOs from the nation’s top companies.

“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,” the president said.

“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.”

Though he has toned down his rhetoric in recent weeks, Mr. Obama has often been harsh in his remarks about big business, particularly Wall Street investment 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 on banks to help recoup some of the government’s costs in the $700 Wall Street bailout.

That’s led some, such as Josh Barro, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, to argue that Mr. Obama plays favorites when it comes to economic policy.

“I don’t think Obama’s agenda is properly termed ‘socialist,’ but it is corporatist, where the government focuses on creating a favorable environment for certain politically-favored businesses and kinds of economic activity, not for entrepreneurship or business in general,” Mr. Barro said.

In his speech, 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 trade, promising to pursue a more “strategic and aggressive effort to open up new markets” for U.S. goods. Several major trade deals, including with South Korea and Colombia, have made virtually no progress toward passage in Congress since Mr. Obama took office.

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

On the eve of a major bipartisan summit, Mr. Obama also sought to convince business leaders that his health care proposal would provide more certainty in the market and reduce the federal deficit. He also defended his record on taxes, saying he has kept his promise to lower taxes for 95 percent of taxpayers while chipping away at tax breaks for the wealthy passed under President George W. Bush.

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