President Barack Obama's public battles with the Chamber of Commerce may be over but the reception his speech received today at Chamber headquarters suggest the two sides are headed less for a full-blown peace than a simmering cold war.
The President began his talk on a humorous note, saying his relationship with the Chamber could have been smoother had he and his staffers traveled the roughly two blocks from the White House, bearing fruitcakes. More substantively, the President touted his business-friendly moves in recent weeks: the tax cut deal with Congressional Republicans, the visit of nearly 20 CEOs to Blair House, his hiring of Bill Daley as chief of staff, and GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt's recent appointment as the head of the White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. He echoed many of the State of the Union address' optimistic themes: For America to succeed in the 21st century, "We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build our competitors."
But the President wasn't all sweetness and light. It's not enough to blame government for the pace of economic recovery, he said. Business, with an estimated $2 trillion on its balance sheets, shares responsibility. "I understand you're under incredible pressure to cut costs and keep your margins up. I understand your obligations to your shareholders," he told the crowd of nearly 200, mostly CEOs of mid-tier companies. Business-owners should ask themselves, he said: "What can you do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, to invest in this nation."
It's unclear how that message will resonate with business owners like Harold Jackson. The CEO of Buffalo Supply Inc., a Lafayette, Colo., medical equipment purveyor, has cut his staff by nearly half in the last two years. On Monday, Jackson said he was "encouraged" by President Obama's support for measured regulations. "The proof will be in his actions," Jackson said, adding, "Until he actually removes regulations, I don't have confidence to hire the way I'd like."
Nearly every American president in the last century has addressed the Chamber. As President, Obama has twice visited the chamber's building: once, for an event for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and for an education event early last year. But neither event was officially sponsored by the chamber. The group has invited Obama to events at least twice, but each time was rebuffed. That's helped drive the popular narrative of war between Obama and business.
And that's the story Obama's trying to reverse. He and his aides point out that Obama regularly consults with American business leaders "his" CEOs, not necessarily those anointed by the Chamber of Commerce. His tone, especially in the weeks since the mid-term elections, unmistakably borrows traditional Chamber, and conservative, rhetoric.
Presidential politics, of course, is driving this. But so is the larger goal: getting the American economy back on its feet. That will require truly careful consideration of things like regulation. And it will also mean business has to take some risks. For the chamber, it will mean accepting its place in Obama's Washington, backing off the strident rhetoric it displayed for much of last year which marginalized its influence, especially on policies that must pass through a Senate still dominated by Democrats.
None of that can happen, though, without a real peace, not just an absence of outright war.