Obama and allies seek to intimidate executives, says Chamber

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The push by progressive groups for disclosure of political funding is intended to deter and suppress free-speech by business owners, said Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“It is all about intimidation. … They want to remove corporate America from its engagement and political discourse,” Donohue said at a media breakfast May 21.

But the pressure can also sometimes spur increased political activity by executives, Donohue said. “Often when you’re raising money and getting people to try to help you… you find people that are frighted [and] sometimes you find people that are mad” because of government pressure, he said.

“Sometime you find people that are frightened and mad, and that really helps,” he said.

However, “we’re not going to pull back,” Bruce Josten, the chamber’s vice-president for government affairs told the reporters at the event, which was hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Despite the pressure, some retired CEOs are standing up to publicly criticize the administration’s policies, said Josten.

In April, Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, slammed Obama for “divide and conquer policies.”

“It was the insurance executives in health care. It was the bankers in the collapse. It was the oil companies as oil prices go up. It was Congress if things didn’t go the way he wanted. And recently it’s been the Supreme Court. … He’s got an enemies list that would make Richard Nixon proud,” Welch said an in op-ed published by Reuters.

Current CEOs, however, are far more cautious, because they’re surrounded by mid-ranking advisers that worry about the damage that can be caused by Democrats’ pressure.

In 2010, the Target chain of stores was hit by a boycott following its donation of $150,000 to the GOP gubernatorial candidate in its home state of Minnesota.

Last week, Democrats threatened retaliation against Joe Ricketts, a Chicago entrepreneur, for initially backing an ad campaign that would have highlighted the extensive and close ties between Obama and radical cleric Jeremiah Wright. Ricketts subsequently denied considering to fund the ad-campaign.

But the pressure sometimes backfires on progressives.

“This kind of stuff is nauseating to me,” Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, N.J., said May 20 on NBC’s Meet The Press about Obama’s criticism of Wall Street’s investment companies, including Gov. Mitt Romney’s Boston-based Bain Capital.

“I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity. … If you look at the totality of Bain Capital’s record, they’ve done a lot to support businesses — to grow businesses,” he said.

The progressive efforts to pressure business executives includes progressive-led boycotts, union protests at non-union companies’ shareholder meetings and — sometimes — physical attacks on company property.

Companies “have had to hire additional security for their CEOs [and] we’ve received threats,” said Josten.

Progressives also use companies’ mistakes to push for even tighter regulation, Donohue said. After the recent revelation that the JPMorgan bank lost perhaps $2 billion in one of many deals “the administration went hammers and tongs after these guys and banks,” and promised even more regulation, said Donohue.

Executives are also being pressured by invective from Obama’s campaign office, said Donohue and Josten. Obama’s “campaign [website targeted] half a dozen well-know business people who dared contribute to the process,” Donohue said.

Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, has used his twitter account to highlight a recent decision by a California court that would force business donors to disclose their contributions to the public. “As [GOP strategist Karl] Rove’s secret SuperPac launchs $25m neg ad campaign, the courts may force him to disclose who’s behind it,” Axelrod tweeted May. 16.

That disclosure push is part of the effort to identify and target executives who support the GOP, but it won’t work, partly because of legal appeals, said Donohue and Josten.

“These cases do not change [the chamber’s practices, and] we will not have to disclose where our funding comes from,” Donohue said.

Neither Donohue nor Josten would say how much money they’re raised from executives to support candidates during the 2012 election.

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