Obama: All We Are Saying Is, Give CEOs a Chance

President Obama makes his way to board Marine One last month on the South Lawn of the White House.
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Aug. 4, 2014, 6:04 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama is of­fer­ing a the­ory of the mod­ern CEO: the en­lightened cap­tive.

He said that on top­ics in­clud­ing the en­vir­on­ment and edu­ca­tion, CEOs who say they want to act in the pub­lic in­terest are sty­mied by Cap­it­ol Hill Re­pub­lic­ans or may not be push­ing their own lob­by­ists hard enough.

“There’s a huge gap between the pro­fessed val­ues and vis­ions of cor­por­ate CEOs and how their lob­by­ists op­er­ate in Wash­ing­ton,” Obama told The Eco­nom­ist in the in­ter­view pub­lished Sat­urday. Obama said he has a chal­lenge for CEOs: “[I]s your lob­by­ist work­ing as hard on those is­sues as he or she is on pre­serving that tax break that you’ve got? And if the an­swer is no, then you don’t care about it as much as you say.”

He ap­plauds busi­ness com­munity ef­forts to win im­mig­ra­tion policy changes, but says busi­ness lead­ers are run­ning up against a GOP that sees the need for an over­haul yet is “cap­tive to the nat­iv­ist ele­ments in its party.”

What about cli­mate change? Obama said CEOs, as a pop­u­la­tion, have split with “deni­al­ists.” “There aren’t any cor­por­ate CEOs that you talk to, at least out­side of maybe—no, I will in­clude CEOs of the fossil-fuel in­dus­tries—who are still deny­ing that cli­mate change is a factor,” he said.

This real-or-not-real fram­ing is help­ful to Obama at a time when many Re­pub­lic­ans re­main cli­mate-change skep­tics. But if these CEOs may split with the GOP on sci­ence, when it comes to policy, the com­mon ground between busi­ness groups and Re­pub­lic­ans re­mains a huge piece of real es­tate.

Sure, a num­ber of ma­jor com­pan­ies back the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s plans to lim­it car­bon emis­sions from coal-fired power plants. Cor­por­a­tions signed on to a sup­port­ive let­ter to Obama in June in­cluded Nike, Uni­lever, Levi Strauss, and oth­ers.

But in the main, power­ful busi­ness and in­dustry groups in­clud­ing the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Man­u­fac­tur­ers are bat­tling the EPA plan at the heart of Obama’s second-term cli­mate agenda.

Obama, however, told The Eco­nom­ist that CEOs’ over­rid­ing in­terest is in pre­dict­ab­il­ity.

“What they want is some cer­tainty around the reg­u­la­tions, so that they can start plan­ning. Giv­en the cap­it­al in­vest­ments that they have to make, they’re look­ing at 20-, 30-year in­vest­ments. They’ve got to know now, are we pri­cing car­bon? Are we ser­i­ous about this? But none of them are en­ga­ging in some of the non­sense that you’re hear­ing out of the cli­mate-change deni­al­ists,” he said.

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