Obama and business, frenemies forever?

By Nina Easton, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- "Maybe," President Obama told his newfound friends at the Chamber of Commerce yesterday, "if we had brought over a fruitcake when we first came in we would have gotten off to a better start."

Sure, the fruitcake reference was a stab at friendly humor toward a business group he had vilified over the past year. But it was also telling: A fruitcake is a notoriously impersonal gesture, repackaged and passed on without much thought or interest about whether the recipient will even like the thing.


Yesterday's much-vaunted outreach to business -- meant as a fresh start in his troubled relations -- had all the makings of a fruitcake.

President Obama "strolled over" (his words), across Lafayette Park to the Chamber of Commerce, where he made the case for a new spending agenda, offered a robust defense of regulation and his much-dreaded healthcare reform, scolded business to produce more American jobs and pay their executives less, and argued that industry should follow his lead -- much as it did when FDR turned auto factories into munitions plants to fight World War II.

But this isn't World War II. It's the hangover of a painful recession, and a time when business executives see government overreach -- as much as slack demand -- blocking the road to recovery.

The President exhorted business to "get in the game" and start hiring. That plea would have had more resonance if businesses weren't staying out of the game in part because of wariness over healthcare costs, a range of new banking and environmental regulations coming down the pike, and tax cuts that were only extended two years. (As AT&T (T, Fortune 500) CEO Randall Stephenson recently told Fortune: "I don't make any investment decisions that are two-year decisions.")

Culture clash

The President's chamber speech began with his familiar peace offering to business: He wants to spend more government money to help their operations and train a better workforce.

"We will upgrade our transportation and communications networks so you can move goods and information more quickly and cheaply," he said. "We will invest in education so that you can hire the most skilled, talented workers in the world." The chamber supported Obama's stimulus spending, so repeating his State of the Union calls for more 21st century "investment" was safe territory.

Likewise, the President's promises to cut the corporate tax rate while closing loopholes and to pass free trade agreements are welcome news to businesses. He also plans to propose a "bigger, permanent" tax credit for business R&D and streamline the patent system. He also repeated his promise to get rid of unnecessary regulations and to make rules more flexible for small business.

"But I want to be clear," he then interjected, "even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America."

It was with this message that the inevitable culture clash emerged between this one-time community organizer who is often accused of wanting to spread the wealth and the less noble calling of private enterprise based on cutting costs and maximizing profit.

This President wants businesses to produce a "virtuous cycle" of investment and hiring, one that lifts all boats and doesn't just translate into bonuses at the top. Looking across the past decade, he declared: "Too many boats have been left behind, stuck in the mud."

There's nothing wrong with a President exhorting business to invest in American jobs, or to bolster the nation's distressed middleclass. First, though, business leaders have to believe you're really on their side.

It was hard to see that yesterday, particularly when President Obama dismissed concerns about his regulatory agenda by comparing them to the sky-is-falling warnings of business decades ago. "Auto executives predicted that having to install seatbelts would bring the downfall of their industry. The President of the American Bar Association denounced child labor laws as 'a communistic effort to nationalize children.'"

He insisted: "The perils of too much regulation is matched by too little."

If the President had reached back to a more recent time he might have noted that it was a Republican President, Richard Nixon, who signed the Clean Air Act and established both the EPA and OSHA, and George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But over the past two years, Republicans have been nearly unanimous in rejecting Obama's healthcare and banking reforms. It's hard to look at more recent history and argue that GOP concerns about Obama's regulatory agenda are fringe positions.

In his interview this week, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly asked the President if he was, as observers say, moving to the center after the bruising November congressional election. "No," the President replied. "I'm the same guy."

Pass the fruitcake. To top of page

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