President Obama continued his campaign to reach out to America’s business community on Monday, telling a few hundred business leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce he wanted to repair relations after a rough two years.
“I’m here in the interest of being more neighborly,” Obama said after walking across Lafayette Park to the Chamber. “Maybe if we had brought over a fruit cake when I first moved in we would have gotten off to a better start.”
“But I’m going to make up for it,” Obama promised.
The response from Republicans in Washington was resoundingly skeptical.
“President Obama has retooled his rhetoric, but not his job-destroying policies, which are eroding confidence, fostering uncertainty, and crowding out private investment,” said House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican.
“It’s clear from his policies that President Obama isn’t as interested in winning the future as he is in rigging it for big government,” Boehner said.
The president brought a full cadre of advisers with him to the Chamber — including new chief of staff Bill Daley — and ticked off his most recent initiatives to position himself as more business-friendly: an emphasis on free trade deals, a promise to reduce regulation, a plan to reduce the corporate tax rate, and a focus on improving America’s ability to compete in the global economy.
But Obama, as he has throughout his presidency, made clear that concessions and compromise on his part come with obligations in return. He spent much of his speech reminding business of their responsibilities to the country.
Specifically, he said, that means that if the government helps them succeed, they should create jobs in America, and not overseas.
“If we as a nation are going to invest in innovation, that innovation should lead to new jobs and manufacturing on our shores,” Obama said. “The end result of tax breaks and investments cannot simply be that new breakthroughs and technologies are discovered in America, but then the manufacturing takes place overseas.”
“That too breaks the social compact. It makes people feel the game is fixed,” he said.
Obama pressured business to start expanding and creating jobs, referencing the oft-mentioned $2 trillion in private capital that has been sitting on the sidelines for months on end.
Many businesses say uncertainty created in large part by Obama’s policies has done much to stifle investment. Many in the administration and at liberal think tanks counter that the capital is not moving due to insufficient consumer demand. This is the reason the policy option of choice for the Obama administration has been to spend more money in an attempt to jump start consumer spending, though President Bush did the same in 2008.
Obama made some mention of uncertainty created by the health-care law passed in March 2010, but argued that the overhaul is going to help businesses save money. He linked the $2 trillion in unutilized capital to demand instead.
“Many of your own economists and salespeople are now forecasting a healthy increase in demand. So I just want to encourage you to get in the game,” he said.
While Obama mentioned his review of regulations to ensure they help the private sector and do not hinder it, he continued to insist that regulation is a worthy endeavor.
“America’s businesses have a responsibility to recognize that there are some basic safeguards, some basic standards that are necessary to protect the American people from harm or exploitation. Not every regulation is bad. Not every regulation is burdensome on businesses,” Obama said.
Obama quoted a past American Bar Association president as having denounced child labor laws as “a communistic effort to nationalize children.” The audience laughed softly.
But Boehner referenced what has now become a regular GOP talking point regarding the executive order on regulations that Obama signed last month: it exempts the health care and financial regulation bills, and also gives agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency discretion to determine on their own whether a regulation is appropriate or not.
“Far from changing tack, his administration is taking steps to protect the job-crushing regulations in its health care and permanent bailout laws, while plotting a backdoor national energy tax,” Boehner said.
Obama invited input from private sector leaders, saying that “if there is a reason you don’t share my confidence, if there is a reason you don’t believe that this is the time to get off the sidelines — to hire and invest — I want to know about it, I want to fix it.”
He is set to get an earful. Earlier in the day, Republicans on Capitol Hill released 2,000 pages of letters from businesses detailing all the ways they believe the administration’s regulatory regime is inhibiting growth.
Obama ended with an anecdote about a former president’s attempt to mend fences with the business community: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who after years of Depression and his New Deal policies had developed a “fractured” relationship with business.
The president said that the U.S. recovered as Roosevelt and the private sector partnered, though much of the demand that drove that growth was the result of the country’s needs as World War II began.
Obama said the same could happen now.
“We know what to do. We know how to succeed. We are Americans,” he said.
Republicans such as Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican and chairman of the House GOP Policy Committee, said that the president should demonstrate with his actions that he means what he says.
“If President Obama were dedicated to making America ‘the best place on earth to do business,’ he would begin by acknowledging the failures of his policies, the dangers they pose to economic growth, and by all means, not reinvent them under a new slogan,” Price said.