Why $2 Trillion Can't Buy Love or Heal Egos: Margaret Carlson

President Barack Obama took bipartisanship beyond civility to gosh-darn friendliness when he ambled across Lafayette Square to speak to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

He rarely walks anywhere -- strolling presidents drive the Secret Service crazy -- but he decided strolling into enemy territory would send just the right message.

Once there, he began with a muted apology for not acting more like Mister Rogers: “Maybe we would have gotten off on a better foot if I had brought over a fruitcake when we first moved in.”

He may not have sent sweets to the chamber, but he did ladle out some pretty sweet deals to its members.

The recovery and stimulus measures he supported included massive helpings of taxpayer money to banks, brokerages and big corporations, few strings attached.

While his political base clamored for the stricter control Republicans demonize as nationalization, Obama went the other way, trusting the banks to lend the money to businesses to help retain and rehire workers. They didn’t, instead hoarding the cash for themselves -- and letting top executives keep their bonuses. Sounds like a pretty beautiful day in the neighborhood to me. Who needs cake?

Corporate America is racking up record profits, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is back above 12,000, rising consumer confidence has shoppers flocking to stores. So what exactly is the chamber’s beef with Obama?

Hurt Feelings

It’s true that business continues to be a vocal critic of Obama’s reshaping of health care and of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. Yet there has to be something more to explain how a traditionally staid member of the Washington establishment has become such a vociferous critic of the president.

There’s a whiff of hurt feelings and bruised egos in the complaints you hear from the chamber about being left off invite lists and about Obama speaking directly to its members. Now there’s a concept for you: I guess presidents should talk to business leaders only through their lobbyists.

Then there’s the “fat cat” insult Obama uttered in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in December 2009 just before the heads of a dozen or so banks were asked, nicely, in a confab at the White House, to help speed the economic recovery.

When Obama took a stab at explaining the public’s unhappiness over news that huge bonuses were going to the folks who caused the meltdown, he veered into a little trash talk.

“I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of, you know, fat-cat bankers on Wall Street,” Obama said.

‘You Guys’

And moments later: “They’re still puzzled, why is it that people are mad at the banks? Well, let’s see. You know, you guys are drawing down $10 million, $20 million bonuses after America went through the worst economic year that it’s gone through in decades, and you guys caused the problem.”

Don’t fat-cat bankers have mothers who made the timeless point that words could never hurt them?

Some other questions: If Obama had spent the year spooning with corporate America, as it apparently had hoped, would the 500 largest nonfinancial companies have spent money on new plants and equipment rather than accumulate $1.93 trillion -- a record -- in cash and other liquid assets as of the end of the third quarter? Would the flotilla of lobbyists arrayed to fight Dodd-Frank have stood down?

Monday’s visit wasn’t Obama’s first to the chamber but his third, despite the chamber spending an estimated $32 million in the midterm election cycle on issue advertising dedicated overwhelmingly to defeat Democrats.

No Objection

For some reason, the White House chose not to fight the “pivot” story line -- the idea that Obama suddenly is wooing business to create the millions of jobs it would have, had it been courted properly.

It can hardly be said with a straight face that the original Obama economic team of Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, with Ben Bernanke at the Fed, was hostile to business.

If corporate America wants to believe that Obama chose his new chief of staff, William Daley, for his relatively few years in the private sector as opposed to his many stellar ones in government and politics, fine. The same goes for appointing General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt to head a newly rebranded Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Hey, it’s cheaper than going to marriage therapy.

Meanwhile, beleaguered homeowners who don’t own valuable real estate just across from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can only hope Obama “pivots” to being as anti-homeowner as he’s been anti-business.

Backing Down

A report by the nonprofit investigative website ProPublica found that Obama backed off his campaign pledge to empower bankruptcy judges to lower the mortgage payments of homeowners facing foreclosure. Seems that Geithner and Summers, those raging populists, were worried that an undeserving homeowner or two might get help.

The industry-friendly voluntary program that instead was implemented will help fewer than 800,000 homeowners get lasting mortgage modifications, far less than the administration’s target of 3 million to 4 million, the report said. And the Treasury Department allowed banks to break the program’s few rules with no ramifications.

We live in a world where corporations have recovered but people have not. Coddling the Fortune 100 doesn’t guarantee any new paychecks. Sweet talk is as devoid of nutrition as fruitcake.

Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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