Obama to Chamber: Let’s Do Business

by Andrew Stiles

One day after insisting during a primetime interview with Bill O’Reilly that he’s “still the same guy” and dismissing talk of triangulation or a move to the center, President Obama visited the Chamber of Commerce headquarters to address an audience of business leaders who, presumably, were hoping to hear otherwise.

Obama came armed with a few jokes to break the ice. “I’m here in the interest of being more neighborly,” he started. “I strolled over from across the street, and look, maybe if we had brought over a fruitcake when I first moved in, we would have gotten off to a better start. But I’m going to make up for it.” The audience laughed.

The address was largely a rehash of his State of the Union, and was essentially a sales pitch tailored to his business audience. He might as well have begun: “Ladies and Gentleman, I’d like to tell you about an exciting new investment opportunity…”

Indeed, Obama continued to stress the need for more “investment” (spending) in areas of research, infrastructure, and education. “If I’ve got one message, it’s this: Now is the time to invest in America,” he repeated — only this time he urged the private sector to step up to the plate and join him in a government-business partnership of sorts. It’s called “winning the future.” And in order to solve the nation’s fiscal problems, the public and private sectors must team up. In fact, they have a responsibility to do so.

Obama made his pitch, envisioning a “win-win,” quid pro quo relationship between government and business. “As a government, we will help lay the foundation for you to grow and innovate,” he said. “But I want to be clear: Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America.”

Government would seek to help the private sector succeed, but — and there is almost always a “but” with President Obama — it wouldn’t be a one-way street. Business had an obligation to “give back.” But he was vague on what exactly that reciprocation would entail. “The benefits can’t just translate into greater profits and bonuses for those at the top,” he said. “That’s not something necessarily we can legislate, but it’s something that all of us have to take responsibility for thinking about.”

As he did during the State of the Union, Obama (meekly) acknowledged the need for spending cuts in order to pay for all the new “investments” he wanted to pursue, reiterating his pledge to veto any bill that includes earmarks and to freeze domestic spending for five years. Those hoping for anything more substantive (any mention of actual cuts, for example) were left wanting.

Government should stop spending money on the things it doesn’t need, he said, but would increase or continue spending on the things it does need — investments for research, infrastructure, and education — like a middle-class family cutting back on household expenses to pay for a child’s college tuition. “We’re trying to run the government like you run your businesses,” he said. “Not by politics but by what’s best for our economy.” More presidential boilerplate.

In a move that deviated from the original text of his remarks, Obama did offer a token confirmation of the pressing need for entitlement reform, without offering much in the way of solutions or guidance. He simply said that entitlement spending was the “driving force on our deficits” and fixing the problem would require both parties to work together. Meanwhile, just outside the Chamber headquarters, a handful of protesters marched holding signs marked: “Hands Off Social Security!” and “Jobs, Free Medicaid for All!”

In addition to the responsibility to “invest” together, Obama said, it was also the responsibility of business and government to work together to find reasonable solutions on regulation. Government would start by “breaking down barriers that stand in the way of your success.” Most significantly, he singled out the corporate tax rate, calling for its reduction and for getting rid of its myriad loopholes, so that American businesses will be more competitive.

Of course, there was the following caveat: That if government is “fighting to reform the tax code and increase exports to help you compete,” the resulting benefits “should be shared by American workers, who need to know that expanding trade and opening markets will lift their standard of living as well as your bottom line.” Again, he failed to specify what he meant by that.

At the same time, he went on, Americans businesses must recognize that some regulations are necessary and beneficial. “We have to recognize that some commonsense regulations often will make sense for your businesses, as well as your families, as well as your neighbors, as well as your coworkers,” he said. “The perils of too much regulation are matched by the dangers of too little.”

Did he have any particular “commonsense” regulations in mind? He did, actually. “We saw that in the financial crisis, where the absence of sound rules of the road was hardly good for business,” he said. “The same can be said of health-insurance reform.”

He then offered a (rather condescending) defense of his health-care law, telling his audience in effect: Look, I get it, you’re wary of all the new regulations, but you don’t need to worry. The CBO says it will save you money:

I know that folks here have concerns about this law.  And I understand it.  If you’re running a business right now and you’re seeing these escalating health care costs, your instinct is if I’ve got even more laws on top of me, that’s going to increase my costs even more.  I understand that suspicion, that skepticism.

But the non-partisan congressional watchdogs at the CBO estimate that health care tax credits will be worth nearly $40 billion for small businesses over the next decade — $40 billion, directly to small businesses who are doing the right thing by their employees.
 
And experts –- not just from the government, but also those commissioned by the Business Roundtable –- suggest that health insurance reform could ultimately save large employers anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 per family — your employees and your bottom line.

All told, the speech won about three or four decent applause lines. This was not one of them.

Generally speaking, there was lot in the speech that might appeal to the business community — a commitment to lower taxes, less regulation, freer trade, a boat-load of taxpayer insured “investment” money at the ready — assuming the rhetoric is translated into action. If business leaders are still skeptical after hearing Obama speak, it is because his past two-years in office have given them plenty of reason to be.

The president concluded with an oddly placed, but not unsurprising, self-comparison to FDR in the run-up to World War II. He cited the creation of the War Production Board — for the purpose of coordinating a massive, unprecedented armament program — which he called “one of the most productive collaborations between the public and private sectors in American history,” and which he hoped to recreate here and now (minus the world war, one presumes).

It was, in part, an effort to inspire confidence in the tremendous American capacity to overcome adversity, to remind us how the country has “carried through far harder times than the ones we’ve just been through.”

We can do this, he urged his listeners.

But in the end, the president’s underlying message to American business (re: its relationship with the government) was summed up in a quote he cited from a former General Motors executive and member of FDR’s War Production Board, who said: “This country has been good to me, and I want to pay it back.”

American business, Uncle Sam wants you.