President Obama’s meeting Wednesday with business leaders, his second such get-together since Election Day, is a sure sign he is intent on repairing a troubled relationship known more for its conflict than partnership during his first term. But when the private-sector tycoons gather in the White House, they’ll feel just as much pressure to make things right.
Only a month ago, many in the business community were openly trying to defeat the president. They denounced him as anti-business and funneled tens of millions of dollars to Mitt Romney’s campaign. By one measure, the Center for Responsive Politics found the finance, insurance, and real estate sector alone contributed $52 million to the Republican, or three times more than the $18 million it gave to Obama.
Obama won, and he earned not only another four years in office but another term just as lawmakers are set to consider a raft of measures – such as tax and entitlement reform – of critical importance to most businesses. In other words, the man they were openly hostile toward now has leverage over them and their fate. Making amends with the president isn’t just good publicity, it might be a necessity for their bottom lines.
“They made a big bet, and they lost,” said Stan Collender, a former Democratic staffer on the House and Senate budget committees. “And now they have to, if not grovel, make it clear they’ll work with the administration.”
There are signs they already have. The business-backed group Fix The Debt, an organization ostensibly pushing for both sides to strike a grand bargain to reduce the country’s deficit, has drawn conservative ire for, in their opinion, focusing less on entitlement reform and more on raising taxes. Some observers believe the tilt, however slight, is part of an implicit effort to extend an olive branch toward Obama – and the impetus for a Wednesday meeting between House GOP leaders and the group.
“Under the rubric of Fix The Debt, they have begun to fix their relations with the White House,” said Steve Bell, a former Republican Senate staffer and senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.”
The group’s pose might be reflective of a new strategy from the business community, business lobbyists say. In the last 12 months, they’ve been able to largely ignore working with the White House in hopes of installing a more favorable negotiator next year. But the fiscal cliff is just the first of a prominent set of issues that will consume Washington for much of the next four years. In addition to possible dives into tax and entitlement reform, the administration will continue implementing the health care law and Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform package.
“We’re all going to have to work together to figure out solutions going forward over the next six, 10 months before people start talking about 2014 and the six-year itch,” said one prominent business lobbyist.
Working together, many business groups say, also means improved business outreach from the White House, which they say ranged from meager or useless during Obama's first term. Many of them tell different versions of the same story when asked about what the White House could do better, anecdotes that often depict an administration that appears to not care, or perhaps worse to not understand the complications its agenda poses for companies. And for some, Obama’s public comments (like once mentioning that Wall Street bankers were “fat cats”) sounded like anti-business rhetoric.
One financial industry executive said working together depends on three elements being aligned: rhetoric, the relationship, and the policy. The White House has at times failed with the first two.
“I’d argue even with pretty robust disagreements over policy, if you had other two pieces intact, you’re going to have a decent relationship,” the executive said.
Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the Chamber of Commerce, said members of his organization will regularly meet with the Treasury Department and other agencies. But inside the White House itself, he said, communication is rare – unless you’re a prominent business leader.
“I honest to God don’t remember another White House in the 24 years I’ve been doing this that exclusively meets with corporate CEOs,” said Josten.
Whether that happens remains to be seen. Most in the business community make little secret they want someone other than Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to be their point-of-contact in the White House, but there’s little expectation she will be replaced.
Some say the steps taken by the president since winning re-election have been encouraging thus far for a more productive relationship, creating a sense among some that, even if the president and his team won’t acknowledge any prior mistakes, they’re at least ready to turn the page.
“I think it will be constructive, I think it has to be constructive,” said Bill Miller, senior vice president at the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs at large U.S. companies. “I don’t think the president wants the economy to fail, and neither do America’s business leaders.”
Miller mentioned energy and regulatory policy as two areas where the business community and White House can hopefully see cooperation. But, in the eyes of some skeptics, happy talk about better outreach misses a more important point: Obama’s policies often collide with the private-sector’s interests. And those policies, said former George W. Bush aide Tony Fratto, are unlikely to change.
"There are some in the business community who want to believe this is a thawing in the relationship,” he said. “And the business community is being deluded if they do believe that. If they think there’s going to be some change in nature of how the Obama administration deals with them in terms of policy, then they are deluding themselves.”