Obama Seeks Common Ground With Business Leaders

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President Obama went to visit a group that's been one of his most powerful enemies — the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber spent tens of millions of dollars against Democrats in last year's election — and opposed his policies on health care, energy and financial reform. Now, the president wants to see if he can find common ground with the business lobby on this year's agenda of deficit cutting, tax reform and trade.


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

President Obama paid a visit today to one of his most powerful enemies: the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber spent tens of millions of dollars against Democrats in last year's elections. It also opposed the president's policies on health care, energy and financial rules. Now, Mr. Obama wants to see if he can find common ground with the business lobby on this year's agenda of deficit cutting, tax reform and trade.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The president traveled by foot today, walking across Lafayette Park to the Chamber of Commerce Building, where he said he was just being neighborly.

President BARACK OBAMA: Look, maybe if we had brought over a fruitcake when I first moved in, we would've gotten off to a better start.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: But I'm going to make up for it.

LIASSON: And he tried with a series of olive branches. He said he wanted to reform the corporate tax code and pass the Columbia and Panama trade agreements, although he didn't specify a timeline for those. He said he wanted to cut the deficit, including entitlements. He called for new investments in education, research and infrastructure. And the president said this about one of the business lobby's biggest gripes: government regulation.

Pres. OBAMA: Already, we're dramatically cutting down on the paperwork that saddles businesses with huge administrative costs. We're improving the way FDA evaluates things like medical devices to get innovative and lifesaving treatments to market faster. And the EPA, based on the need for further scientific analysis, delayed the greenhouse gas permitting rules for biomass.

LIASSON: It's unlikely he satisfied his audience with those gestures on regulation. The new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Republican Darrell Issa, is leading an effort to roll back lots of regulations, with the EPA his biggest target. But the president also delivered a tougher message to the chamber. Echoing JFK, he said business has more to do.

Pres. OBAMA: Ultimately, winning the future is not just about what the government can do for you to succeed. It's also about what you can do to help America succeed.

LIASSON: There are huge banners hanging on the White House side of the chamber that spell J-O-B-S. And today, the president tried to jawbone the business community into creating some of those jobs. Although he said this was not something we can legislate, he asked the chamber members to do what they could to close a widening chasm of wealth and opportunity in America.

Pres. OBAMA: If we're fighting to reform the tax code and increase exports to help you compete, the benefits can't just translate into greater profits and bonuses for those at the top. They have to be shared by American workers who need to know that expanding trade and opening markets will lift their standards of living as well as your bottom line.

LIASSON: As Mr. Obama pointed out, American companies currently have nearly $2 trillion sitting on their balance sheets. And that's just one of the confounding things about the recovery. Corporate profits are at record highs, bonuses are up, so is the stock market, but hiring is not. I want to encourage you to get in the game, the president said.

Pres. OBAMA: And if there's a reason that you don't share my confidence, if there's a reason that you don't believe that this is the time to get off the sidelines, to hire and to invest, I want to know about it.

LIASSON: The president got a polite response, little applause and a lot of stony silence. But Dave Adkisson, the president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, stressed the business lobby's support for the president's investments in research and infrastructure.

Mr. DAVE ADKISSON (President, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce): The business community is calling for more investment in infrastructure, our roads and bridges. You can't handle goods. I mean, in my own state, we have examples of that. It's spending on entitlement programs and doing business the way we've always done it in a lot of other areas that gets people concerned.

LIASSON: To push more money for infrastructure the chamber has teamed up with the AFL-CIO, an unusual bipartisan pairing. And the chamber is even willing to go further than the president to pay for it. The chamber actually supports higher gasoline taxes, something White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley recently ruled out.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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