Jim Droney is willing to give President Barack Obama a chance. "He is, I believe, a good person," says the CEO of Mt. Lebanon Office Equipment in Pittsburgh. "But so was Jimmy Carter."
Mark Stevens, a marketing and management consultant at MSCO in Westchester, N.Y., has a similar reaction: "Give him a chance, of course. But I am concerned he won't give us one." His main concern, Stevens says, is that the President does not understand or appreciate the risk-taking, small-government entrepreneurial mindset.
In the midst of a bruising recession and stubborn credit freeze, and with enormous policy changes being announced by the new Administration thick and fast, that combination of hope, fear, and skepticism is common among small business owners settling in with a new, Democratic Administration in Washington, experts say.
In line with a pair of national polls released this week, many entrepreneurs say they like Obama personally but question the wisdom of his policy prescriptions, particularly on health-care reform, the economic stimulus package, and support for labor unions.
Lack of Credit
"Our network of small businesses and women-owned businesses seems to be cautiously optimistic" about the future, says Ann Sullivan, a lobbyist for Women Impacting Public Policy, a bipartisan organization advocating for women and minority business owners. Obama "has an awful lot of goodwill, but the economy has posed a challenge for him and they're hopeful he'll be able to bring the economy back," she says.
"There's some optimism, but the talk has not necessarily matched what's happening," says Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce. "Obama is saying that small business is our ticket to growth, but women can't get access to capital and one-third of all small business owners are women."
The lack of credit, despite the Administration's efforts to reduce fees and increase guarantees on loans backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration, has been particularly discouraging for small business owners, says Kristie Arslan, executive director of legislative offices at the National Association for the Self-Employed, an organization that claims 250,000 members, all of whom have 10 or fewer employees.
"The efforts the Obama Administration have been trying have been important, but I'm not sure how effective they've been. We're still facing the same problems in terms of accessing credit and banks not lending to our members," she says.
Groups that specifically poll small business owners, including Gallup and the National Federation of Independent Business, say they have not surveyed entrepreneurs about their reactions to the new Administration.
Poll of Small Business Owners
An April survey conducted by City Business Journals Network showed that 60% of 301 small business respondents said the Obama Administration "doesn't understand the needs of small business owners" and a majority believed the President would serve just one term. More than 40% said they were less optimistic about the national economy than they were when Obama took office, compared with 26% who said they were more optimistic.
However, that survey was conducted in mid-March, before recent positive economic signs emerged and during the week when the public became outraged over large bonuses given to executives of American International Group (AIG). The sample was also heavily weighted toward conservatives, with 42% of respondents identifying themselves as Republicans, 34% as independents, and 16% as Democrats.
John Arensmeyer, executive director of Small Business Majority, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on health-care reform, says his polling shows that while there are more Republicans in the small business population than in the U.S. population in general, the split is closer to 40% Republican, 35% Democrat, and 25% independent.
It may be an impossible task to pin down the political leanings of the wildly diverse small business population, ranging from work-at-home solopreneurs to principals at high-tech partnerships to manufacturing CEOs.
But there are some small business owners who aren't conflicted at all in their reactions to President Obama.
Range of Opinions
"If someone were trying to destroy small business they couldn't come up with a better plan than the one put forth by our President," says Gary Foreman, founder of The Dollar Stretcher, a frugal-living newsletter and Web site. "We'll survive the recession. But if Obama's policies are put into practice, we might not survive them."
Lynn Casper, on the other hand, owns environmental consulting firm American Geosciences in Murrysville, Pa., and can find nothing negative about the new Administration. "I have been impressed with President Obama. I think he handled the bank crisis very well. I love the fact that he is hiring 800 new IRS agents. To me, he comes across as very level-headed," she says.
Others are finding the sheer pace of activity in the Obama Administration overwhelming. "Evaluation of the President's performance should not be immediate. All new CEOs deserve a 'ramp-up period' to implement their agenda," says John J. Killeen, managing director of small business consulting firm Chesapeake Bay Associates. "However, the actions of this Administration are galloping through complicated issues with simple solutions. 'Throw dollars at it and it will fix itself' is not a solution."
National polls of the population at large show that the President is broadly popular and that consumer confidence has grown since his inauguration. That upswing is starting to be felt by some entrepreneurs, including Jacqueline Church Simonds, who owns independent book publisher Beagle Bay in Reno, Nev. A CBS/New York Times poll put his job approval rating at 63% this week and an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows his favorability rating at 60%.
"We have been through the recent downturn, and it was brutal. It hit Reno in summer 2007 and made business come to a halt by October 2008," she says. "I've heard arguments that Obama hasn't really done anything. Well, that may be so, but he's changed people's minds about how bad things are. My customers are buying again. They aren't at the crazy spending levels of a couple of years ago, but it's steady, and for that we're grateful."
The Patient Approach
Even some entrepreneurs who don't foresee their business picking up any time soon, however, are willing to give Obama time.
"President Obama is smart, young, and energetic. As a small business owner who provides several costly employee benefits, I fear that the recovery could be long in coming and may require workforce or benefit reductions," says Mark Lewis, a wholesale distributor of hydraulic systems components whose firm employs 19 and is located in Greentree Boro, Pa. "For now, I will trust his circle of experts and will offer no advice. We are in for a bumpy ride so let him steer the boat."
Flip through this slide show for feedback on President Obama and his policies from individual small business founders and chief executives from across the country.