Obama and CEOs: The great thaw

By Charles Riley, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The CEOs are coming, and maybe just in time.

Last week, the administration said that 20 CEOs will meet with President Obama on Wednesday for a discussion that will cover trade, clean energy, the deficit and tax code reform.

The meeting is a highly visible example of the commitment President Obama made to improve relations with the business community after suffering a self-described "shellacking" in the midterm elections.

"The working session is an opportunity for the president to continue building strong partnerships in the business community," said White House Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki.

It's no secret that the relationship between the business community and the White House has been ... rocky. But there are some key signs the relationship might be on the mend.

Two agreements reached in the past two weeks - a tax compromise with Republican lawmakers and a free trade agreement with South Korea - have won plaudits from the business community.

"This is the first meeting after the election, at a time when the president has shown a willingness to work in bipartisan way," Financial Services Forum president Rob Nichols said. "We hope these two steps [the South Korea trade deal and tax compromise] will lead to a growth path."

Nichols, who leads an organization consisting of CEOs of 20 leading financial services institutions, said he is hoping for candor, and a meaningful dialogue to emerge.

If Obama is to get big business back on his side, he has to look no further than across the street.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses and is located just steps from the White House, is cheering the administration's recent course.

"I think he [Obama] has done the right thing to reach out to people in both parties," Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue said last week during a television interview with FOX News.

The Chamber invested heavily in GOP candidates during the run-up to the midterm elections, but has been effusive in its praise of the tax compromise.

And the free trade agreement announced by the administration drew this response from the Chamber:

"The administration has done its part. Now it's time for the new Congress to make passage ... a top priority in January. We will do everything in our power to round up the votes," Donohue said in statement released after the agreement was announced.

In another sign of a thaw, Obama is considering attending a jobs summit hosted by the Chamber, which is expected to take place in early January.

What's the beef?

The latest White House summit comes a year after Obama chastised "fat cat" bankers who took large bonuses during the financial crisis, and six months after he lashed out at BP during the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Those remarks left a sour taste in the mouth of the business leaders, and rhetoric became elevated.

"We would like to restore that dialogue to a place of thoughtfulness," Nichols said.

While business leaders have spoken out against Obama, they have also been highly critical of the legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Businesses have pushed back against Obama's signature legislative achievements, including health care reform and a sweeping overhaul of the nation's financial system.

Just last week, the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs, released a report that said the success and profitability of U.S. companies "has been threatened by inflexible and cumbersome regulations in the financial services, environmental and health care sectors."

Specifically, the Roundtable charged that the financial reform law known as the Dodd-Frank Act interferes with the ability of businesses to innovate and create jobs and will increase volatility, risk and uncertainty in the market.

The Roundtable also wants lawmakers and the administration to take another look at health care reform. The group said the law does not adequately address cost containment or tort reform, and includes taxes and fees that will be passed on to purchasers.

While the administration is unlikely to budge on health care reform, Ivan Seidenberg, the CEO of Verizon Communications (VZ, Fortune 500) is optimistic about a detente between business and the administration.

"In the last couple of days or last month or so I think the president's shown a willingness to learn. He's curious. He's always been curious," Seidenberg said last week at a press conference held by the Business Roundtable.

"Where we are today is, we're in a moment that we want to work not just with the president, but the new Congress to make sure that we get the country on the right track," said Seidenberg.

-CNN's Dan Lothian contributed to this report. To top of page

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