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Obama Seeks Approach to Counter Anti-Business Image

Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue
Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama is preparing new overtures to business that may start with a walk into the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a retreat with corporate chief executive officers, according to people familiar with his plans.

The Obama administration has been at odds with the Chamber, which fought Obama’s health-care and financial regulatory overhauls and committed $75 million to political ads in the midterm congressional elections, mainly directed against Democrats. The CEO summit would be a way to address complaints from some executives that the Democratic administration is anti-business.

The Chamber had invited Obama to speak on Dec. 2 and the administration hadn’t yet replied when the Chamber canceled the event, said an administration official. The cancellation wasn’t related to the president’s potential participation, said a Chamber official who declined to be identified.

The nation’s biggest business lobbying group has since invited the president to speak in January. The administration is considering the new invitation, which would place Obama at the Chamber shortly before he delivers his State of the Union address, said an administration official.

“We are and continue to be interested in speaking with them and their members, and we’ll see if the schedule allows it in the beginning of the year,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today at his daily press briefing.

Donohue’s Pledge

Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue pledged Nov. 17 to work with Obama and lawmakers in both parties to pass pending trade agreements, cut the long-term government debt and preserve the independence of the U.S. Federal Reserve. He also broke with Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who say their top priority is defeating Obama in 2012.

Donohue said that U.S. companies are facing a “tsunami” of regulations that are becoming a tax on citizens while disagreeing with McConnell’s proposed solution of pushing for Obama’s defeat.

“It’s not our intention to weaken the president in any way,” Donohue told reporters after his Nov. 17 speech. “We are ready to walk across this park and work with the administration on any issue.”

The Chamber’s headquarters building faces Washington’s Lafayette Park, across from the White House. The same day, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk crossed the park to speak with the Chamber’s board in closed-door meetings.

Business Leaders

To address corporate criticism, Obama is also contemplating bringing business leaders into his administration. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Obama hasn’t had a prominent corporate leader in a high-level administration job.

One possibility is retired Procter & Gamble Co. chief executive officer Alan Lafley, who could be appointed to a high-level post as a Cabinet member or senior presidential adviser, said a person familiar with the deliberations.

Lafley, 63, said in an e-mailed statement that he wasn’t aware of any discussions of an appointment.

“To the best of my knowledge, I am neither being considered for nor have I been offered any job by the White House,” Lafley said.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Obama plans to “consult broadly with the business community, including Mr. Lafley, on recommendations for the NEC position.”

Roger Altman, 64, founder of Evercore Partners Inc. and a former deputy Treasury secretary, has emerged as a leading candidate to replace Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council, according to two people familiar with the matter. Altman met with the president on Nov. 16.

Altman has defended the Obama administration against criticism that it is anti-business while also saying the administration has made mistakes in its approach.

Another open position that may be filled with a business executive is deputy Commerce secretary, said an administration official.

Clash in Election

The discussion of a visit to the Chamber headquarters in Washington follows an election-season clash in which Obama and his allies responded to the business group’s advertising barrage with charges that the Chamber accepted undisclosed funds from foreign corporations. Donohue denied the accusation.

Commenting on the possibility of a presidential visit to the Chamber, White House spokeswoman Psaki said Nov. 20 that “economic recovery is the most important goal for the president, and working with all of the stakeholders, including the Chamber of Commerce, on export promotion, free and fair trade to grow the economy and create jobs is an important part of achieving that goal.”

“The Chamber doesn’t have anything currently planned, but we’d always be happy to host the president to talk about jobs and the economy,” said Tom Collamore, the organization’s senior vice president of communications and strategy.

Outreach to CEOs

Psaki declined to comment on the possibility of a CEO summit, saying Obama “will continue outreach to CEOs.”

Obama signaled a changed approach to U.S. business during a news conference on Nov. 3, the day after his party sustained its biggest losses in the House of Representatives since 1938.

Obama said he planned to change the administration’s approach to make “absolutely clear” that the success of private businesses is crucial to the economy.

With the economy the top concern of voters, the president said he hoped that reaching out to the business community would get companies to invest some of the almost $1 trillion in cash that Moody’s Investors Service estimates U.S.-based companies had amassed on their books as of mid-year.

“Setting the right tone publicly is going to be important and could end up making a difference at the margins in terms of how businesses make investment decisions,” Obama said.

India Trip

On his visit to India this month, Obama included a speech to the U.S.-India Business Council, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He also had a roundtable discussion with corporate CEOs from the U.S. and India, including Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric Co. and Jim McNerney of Boeing Co.

During the election campaign, Obama repeatedly cast himself and Democrats as defenders of middle-income Americans against Wall Street banks, corporations, the oil industry, the insurance industry and credit-card companies.

Some business leaders have taken exception to rhetoric such as a remark in May by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about efforts to clean up the oil spill from a BP Plc well. Salazar said the U.S. government would keep “our boot on their neck.”

Business Complaints

Business executives’ complaints about the administration’s policies focus on Obama’s efforts to overhaul Wall Street regulations, raise taxes on overseas corporate income, end Bush-era tax cuts for high-income taxpayers, impose new costs on employers for health care, tighten environmental reviews and rework pending free-trade agreements.

“The business community is about as alienated from a government as I have ever seen it,” Mort Zuckerman, the 73-year-old chief executive officer of Boston Properties Inc., said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Sept. 10.

The Bloomberg Global Poll in September found that more than three-quarters of U.S.-based Bloomberg subscribers who are investors, traders or analysts said Obama is too anti-business. Sixty-two percent of U.S. investors have an unfavorable view of Obama, according to a subsequent poll conducted Nov. 8.

“This poisonous dynamic” must be fixed, Altman wrote in an opinion article published July 19 in the New York Times.

“Both sides should make adjustments, but the business community -- of which I am a proud member -- especially needs to make efforts to mend this relationship,” Altman wrote. “Yes, the administration has made some mistakes. But, on balance, its actions have supported business.”

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