Mon February 7, 2011

New Approach: Obama Woos Chamber Of Commerce

The headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington is just across Lafayette Park from the White House, but the distance between the Chamber and the Obama administration often seemed wider during the president's first two years in office.

The Chamber actively campaigned against key parts of the Obama agenda, including the health care law and new rules for financial services. But in recent weeks, the administration has been talking more about ways to work together with businesses to put people back to work. In that spirit, Obama will speak at the Chamber on Monday.

A History Of Differences

The Chamber of Commerce says it has had policy battles with every president, including President Reagan, who didn't always see eye-to-eye with the business lobby. But David Chavern, the Chamber's chief operating officer, says sooner or later every occupant of the White House finds a reason to come calling.

"Probably every president in the last 100 years has walked across the park and spoken to the Chamber at one point or another," he said, "both of us just looking for the right opportunity, and it's a good time to be talking to the business community."

Friday's jobs report was a reminder that though the U.S. economy is on the mend, unemployment is still painfully high and Obama needs help from the business community to turn that around. The new director of the president's National Economic Council, Gene Sperling, says Obama hopes to work with the Chamber just as he worked with congressional Republicans to strike a deal on tax cuts and other issues late last year.

"December really was a turning point," Sperling said. "People see the president willing and able to work together to get some things done that matter on the economy and jobs."

Finding Common Ground

It was also in December that the president signed a free-trade agreement with South Korea, a deal the Chamber played an important role in brokering. Chavern says that cooperation helped break the ice.

"We've obviously had some big battles with the administration," he said. "This was an opportunity for us to work together, and it probably did help us look for other areas where we can work together."

Some of those other areas include boosting exports, improving the country's transportation network and revamping the corporate tax code. Chavern also praises recent personnel changes in the administration, including Obama's selection of GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt to head a new business advisory council and his choice of JPMorgan executive Bill Daley to be the new White House chief of staff.

"Certainly Bill Daley is a very experienced guy, not only in politics but also in business," Chavern said. "There have been a number of other appointments where we feel we at least have somebody we can talk to. And that's got to help."

At a Bloomberg News breakfast last week, Daley said he had heard the complaints from business people who regarded some of the president's rhetoric as unduly hostile. On the other hand, Daley said, some irresponsible businesspeople had it coming.

"Sometimes you have to pick on them — the business community — and I was there in the financial services sector," Daley said. "One would have to be an idiot to think they shouldn't have been slapped around a little for the excesses and the abuses that went on."

Hitting 'Reset' Button

Both sides expect more fights between the White House and the Chamber over regulations, including those to implement the new health care and financial laws the Chamber fought so hard to stop last year. Obama has offered to roll back some regulations, but he is not likely to go as far as the Chamber would like.

On the whole, though, the president seems eager to hit the "reset" button with the business lobby, starting with Monday's speech. He offered a preview in his weekly radio address Saturday.

"That's the message I'll be bringing to American business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce on Monday -– that government and businesses have mutual responsibilities, and that if we fulfill these obligations together, it benefits us all.

"Our workers will succeed. Our nation will prosper. And America will win the future in this century just like we did in the last."

We can expect to hear a lot more about winning the future together Monday as Obama reaches out to a key potential partner in this new phase of his presidency. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.