Big business to Obama: The fight's not over

By Tory Newmyer, writer


FORTUNE -- There will be a limit to the nascent thaw between President Barack Obama and his leading antagonist in the business community, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That was the subtext of a speech Chamber president Tom Donohue delivered today, putting the administration on notice that the big business lobby plans to aggressively check moves they view as hostile to growth.

In his annual "State of American Business" address on Tuesday, Donohue zeroed in on overzealous rulemaking as a potential hamstring to the economic recovery -- pointing in particular to the implementation of the health care and financial reform laws and plans by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. He warned of a pending "regulatory tsunami" that threatens to transform our democracy "from a government of the people to a government of the regulators." And he pledged to put his group's considerable lobbying muscle behind an effort devoted to fighting "the massive costs of excessive regulations on jobs and on our personal and economic freedoms."

It wasn't all doom and gloom. Donohue's warnings about stifling regulations followed a prediction of 3.2% economic growth in 2011 and the net creation of 2.4 million to 2.6 million new jobs. The threat of a double-dip recession has receded, he said, and the Chamber is now "cautiously optimistic that the recovery will continue and pick up steam as the year progresses."

The speech comes against the backdrop of what appears to be an emerging détente between his group and the White House. The administration has cheered the business community in general and the Chamber in particular with new overtures in the wake of their midterm shellacking.

Donohue accompanied Obama on a post-election trip to Asia to help negotiate the final details of a long-stalled trade pact with South Korea; his group championed the tax package that Obama negotiated with Republicans during the lame-duck Congressional session because it extended the Bush rate cuts; and last week, he applauded Obama for his proposal to allow long-haul Mexican trucks on American highways, to the chagrin of labor unions.

To that end, on Tuesday, even as he dismissed past scraps with the White House as nothing personal, Donohue singled out as encouraging two new administration hires -- former Commerce Secretary and Wall Street executive Bill Daley for chief of staff, and Clinton administration National Economic Council director Gene Sperling for the same post. "We continue to work with people all throughout the White House," Donohue said in a press conference after his speech. "So it's never been personal with us. It's always been arguments about what we thought about labor law, or environmental law or health care law. There may have been some people over there that got sort of excited or energetic about trying to represent their interests.I do think that the new people will be helpful."

Obama's most significant gesture of outreach is slated for next month, when he'll venture out of the White House and across Lafayette Park to deliver a speech at Chamber headquarters. But the administration is no doubt wary about whether Donohue can ever be more than a frenemy. As he told Bloomberg BusinessWeek in apost-election profile, their fights are far from over. "Oh, hell no," Donohue told the magazine. "They are in the second inning." To top of page

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