White House sets up virtual Chamber of Commerce

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The White House is setting up its own virtual Chamber of Commerce, where it will offer services to businesses and solicit executives’ advocacy of new regulations and marketplace interventions.

The new facility is an online “forum” hosted by the White House Business Council.

The forum is a “place where business owners can continue the conversation, share ideas and stories, and stay in touch with the White House,” according to a Nov. 16 announcement found at the White House Blog.

“We can’t wait to take action to get our economy moving again. Share your ideas for what concrete actions that President Obama can take right now to create jobs and grow the economy, without waiting on Congress to write a bill or draft legislation,” said the announcement, signed by Ari Matusiak, the executive director of the council.

The forum announcement also promised a new website, dubbed BusinessUSA, “where businesses of all sizes can access services and information to help them grow and hire.” The site is to go online early in 2012.

The new effort comes as administration officials try to jump-start the stalled economy one year before the 2012 election.

It also follows three years of political wrestling with the U.S Chamber of Commerce, whose chief, Tom Donohue, has vigorously led diverse business opposition to many White House priorities that are intended to curb the autonomy and profitability of companies.

A chamber-like office at the White House is an unsurprising reach for Obama, who has worked with congressional Democrats to extend government’s reach over much of the U.S. auto industry, the financial sector and the health sector.

Obama’s efforts to incorporate the energy sector and most workplaces under federal regulation, however, were derailed when some Democrats allied with GOP legislators — and the U.S. Chamber — to block his proposed carbon-tax bill and his “card-check” union bill.

The card-check bill would also have given federal arbitrators the legal authority to decide wages and working conditions in many companies.

The chamber says it represents the interests of 3 million companies, of which 96 percent have 100 employees or fewer.

The forum announced Wednesday is part of a stepped-up effort by the administration to mollify or co-opt business leaders around the country who are skeptical or hostile to the administration’s market-managing agenda.

“Since April, the White House Business Council has held over 500 events with business owners and entrepreneurs in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico,” said the Nov. 16 post on the White House Blog that announced the new forum.

On Nov. 15, for example, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met with 20 top executives from Atlanta and Gwinnett County, Ga. The attendees included medium-sized companies, as well as leaders from Delta Airlines and the Home Depot, according to the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.

“The Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation are committed to working with our partners in the private sector to ensure our infrastructure networks evolve to meet the needs of America’s future generations,” said LaHood.

The business council is different from the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, now chaired by G.E.’s chief, Jeffrey Immelt.

Instead the council is an office formed in 2009 to coordinate White House outreach to business. It has arranged trips by more than 100 senior administration officials.

The council was intended to ensure that administration officials “are getting out of Washington to hear directly from American business leaders, and that the ideas they are hearing across the country are brought back to Washington, furthering the Administration’s commitment to grow jobs and increase American economic competitiveness,” according to a White House document.

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