CORRECTION: The original version of this report gave an incorrect name for the co-founder of Vintage Vinyl. He is Lew Prince. The report also misstated the date of President Obama's last meeting with CEOs at the White House. It was two weeks ago.
President Obama’s anti-Wall Street rhetoric has strained his relationship with the business community, and Republicans spent the summer pounding his clumsily worded comments discussing the role of government in building infrastructure critical to businesses. But the president still has some small-business owners behind him, as the White House demonstrated on Tuesday by rounding up 15 such supporters for a meeting.
“If you look at the people going into the White House today—none of us are asking for a tax break for ourselves or for our company, or anything personal. We’re here because we’re patriots,” said participant Lew Prince, co-founder of Vintage Vinyl, a store in St. Louis.
Obama insists that his policies have been pro-business, but many in the business community are wary of his regulatory policies and his signature health care reform law. Negotiations to avert end-of-year tax hikes and spending cuts have provided the president with a golden opportunity to patch up frayed relations—or at least to show the public and skeptical lawmakers that he’s trying.
Tuesday’s meeting, however, didn’t involve much reconciliation. Most of the participants were stalwart Obama backers. Several attendees had previously signed a petition calling on Congress to act on the president’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and to invest in infrastructure and other public services.
“We don’t want to be the only generation since World War II to hand the next generation worse infrastructure, and worse schools, and worse communications systems,” Prince said. “Basically, the people who are defending the tax cuts for the rich are saying that it’s more important that they take home 70 percent of their profits than that they take home 60 percent of their profits to help the country.”
Republicans charge that raising tax rates on top earners will impose burdens on small-business owners, hampering a crucial component of our economy. But those invited to the White House on Tuesday said that a higher tax rate would not impede their ability to do business.
“As a small-business owner, my business decisions are not driven by my tax rate,” said Lisa Goodbee, CEO of Goodbee and Associates. As someone who earns more than $250,000 a year, she would be subject to higher taxes under Obama’s plan.
“The tax rate doesn’t really determine whether we are hiring or firing people,” Goodbee contended. Infrastructure cuts would be more worrying, she said. Her Colorado civil-engineering business specializes in utility coordination for transportation projects.
A silver-haired Chamber of Commerce delegation this was not. A California mushroom-grower, a New York-based accessories retailer, and a Wisconsin microbrewery were among the businesses invited to the White House. Women-owned and minority-owned businesses and young entrepreneurs were well represented. In assembling the group, the admi9nistration reached out to friendly organizations, such as the American Sustainable Business Council.
After the meeting, participants said they were fully supportive of Obama’s plan. “I think everybody was very behind the president,” said Chris Yura, the founder of SustainU, a West Virginia-based purveyor of recycled clothing.
The White House has said that some of the small-business owners whom Republicans are worried about burdening with higher taxes are hedge-fund managers and law firm partners—not the owners of the corner store. Needless to say, Tuesday’s meeting didn’t include any hedge-fund managers.
Obama may have a heavier lift ahead of him on Wednesday, when he meets with CEOs and other top executives, including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. Obama met with executives of some of the nation’s biggest companies two weeks ago, and Wednesday's meeting is something of a follow-up. Obama often voices his support for small businesses, but he’s less quick to praise big business: He has criticized “fat-cat bankers,” and his reelection campaign attacked the private-equity industry and outsourcing.
Less friendly members of the business community were already making their voices heard on Tuesday. “We strongly urge Congress to pursue comprehensive tax reform that lowers rates on all forms of business income while enacting significant entitlement reforms,” read a letter to congressional leaders, which was signed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, and other groups.
“Uncertainty over tax rates is keeping small businesses from expanding and hiring new workers,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a statement highlighting the letter. Small businesses, McCarthy said, are “the engine of job growth in this country.”
As a left-leaning businessman, Prince said, there’s something special about meeting with Republicans. “Because I am a small businessman, they have officially appointed me a job-creating genius,” he said—and so they listen to him. As Obama engages with business people, his challenge is convincing them that he’s listening—and that he’ll listen to those who disagree with him, too.