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Liberals Unhappy With Obama's Business Outreach

The White House reset upsets some old allies.


President Obama is introduced by U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue before speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington today.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Alarmed at President Obama’s continuing outreach to the business community, liberal and labor leaders have warned the White House that disgruntled progressives may just stay home rather than work for the president’s reelection next year.

The latest step in that outreach is the president’s journey this morning to the heart of the enemy -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the group that has thwarted so much of the Obama agenda and poured millions into the campaigns of opposition Republicans.


Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said his members are “not rushing to vote for a Republican.” But, he said, “it is going to be hard to get them to show up at the polls” for Obama. “Our villain is apathy. They are disgruntled. They are discouraged. They have no enthusiasm for what either party is saying right now.’’

The problem, he said, is that union members see Obama bringing on corporate leaders as his top advisers and soliciting the views of the Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders more than he does labor leaders.

“This isn’t a truce with business,” said Buffenbarger, who was a fervent supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries. “I think he’s capitulated.”


Just as unhappy is Adam Green, leader of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He said the White House is miscalculating if it thinks “Obama is picking up some niche of voters by sucking up to Wall Street while dragging progressives along. That’s just not true. What voters is he picking up? None.”

In an e-mail, Green added, “If some political strategist thinks that independent voters are turned off by holding Wall Street accountable, for the sake of the entire Democratic Party, that strategist should be fired. Immediately.”

Green said that Obama’s effort to win over the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups “sends a signal that they learned the exact wrong lesson from 2010 when many former Obama voters weren’t inspired to return to the polls. This strategy will both turn off independent voters in 2012 and be disastrous for our economy.”

There was little direct criticism from Democrats of the president’s decision to give a speech to the chamber. But one group fired away, releasing a video that they boasted was “scathing.”  The video was released by the Agenda Project, a  New York liberal organization that portrayed the speech as a repudiation of Obama’s promise in the State of the Union address to rebuild faith in government. “Meeting with the biggest lobbyists in the country is hardly a step in the right direction,” complained the group’s leader, Erica Payne.


            “The chamber claims to speak for American business, but half of the chamber’s budget is paid for by 45 big corporations,” she said in a statement. “The president is well aware that the chamber is in actuality just a high priced lobbyist for a small number of corporations. I hardly think the president will restore our faith in government by fawning over the banks at the center of the financial crisis...”

But Jon Cowan, president and co-founder of Third Way, encourages Obama to continue his outreach efforts. Third Way is a Democratic think tank that pushes moderate and centrist policies for the party.

“The path to reelection runs through the center of the electorate. And the center of the electorate is pro-growth, and they are not populist,” said Cowan. “And so the politics and the policy of being a pro-growth Democratic president align perfectly.”

He said it is critical for Obama to “repair the breach with the business community.” And, he said, in doing so, Obama is being true to himself. “There was a tendency, pushed by the left, to frame everything as anti-business populism,” he said. “And I don’t think that is naturally what Obama is.”

This story was modified at 5:02 PM. 



This article appears in the February 7, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.

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