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Obama Keeps Coterie of Corporate Friends Close Amid Criticism

President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- He’s called bankers fat cats, been labeled as anti-business and used the presidential bully pulpit to demand corporate chiefs spend some of their $2 trillion in cash to boost hiring.

No hard feelings.

Even though his relationship with U.S. business has been strained at times, President Barack Obama has kept a coterie of business leaders, such as Robert Wolf, chairman of UBS AG’s Americas unit, and Honeywell International Inc. chairman David Cote, in his orbit.

“You’d rather be at the table than not at the table,” said Steven Kaplan, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “You figure this is a way to do something useful for your country.”

Obama raised more than $40 million for his presidential campaign from business groups and financial firms in the 2008 presidential campaign, more than double what his Republican opponent John McCain got. Many of those supporters have stayed with Obama during the first two years of his term even as the administration drew criticism over government regulation, the overhaul of health-care laws and rules for financial institutions.

While keeping supporters in his inner circle, Obama also has drawn allies who weren’t with him in the campaign. Obama named on Jan. 21 General Electric Co. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt, to head an advisory panel on economic competitiveness and job creation, a centerpiece of the president’s agenda for the second half of his term.

No Conflict

Immelt, who cites Ronald Reagan as a personal hero and donated to Republicans as well as Hillary Clinton, Obama’s chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination and now his Secretary of State, said there’s no conflict in mixing business and government roles in policymaking.

“There is always a healthy tension between the public and private sectors,” Immelt, who was named a member of the panel when it was created almost two years ago, wrote in a Jan. 21 Washington Post article announcing his appointment as chairman. “However, we all share a responsibility to drive national competitiveness, particularly during economic unrest. This is one of those times.”

Immelt also was on the President’s Economic Recovery Board, which Obama set up shortly after taking office and which the new panel will supersede.

“I have appreciated his wisdom during these past two years,” Obama said after he and the GE executive toured a company factory in Schenectady, New York.

Campaign Relationship

Obama, 49, counted corporate executives among his advisors and top fundraisers in his run for the presidency in 2008. Wolf, for example, helped raise $500,000 for Obama’s campaign and has stayed close to the president. He served on the original advisory panel and was part of an exclusive group who played golf with Obama while the first family was on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard in August.

Wolf also was among the executives invited to a series of meals in Washington as Obama reached out to win support from businesses. He was joined on the invitation list by Intel Corp.’s Paul Otellini and Andrew Liveris of Dow Chemical Co., who were back at the White House on Jan. 18 for the state dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Immelt, Boeing Co.’s James McNerney and Coca-Cola Co.’s Muhtar Kent, who serve on Obama advisory boards, attend regular meetings at the White House and get seats at state dinners as well, as do JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon, Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer and Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Private Meetings

At the White House, Obama and his aides regularly welcome corporate executives to private meetings. Immelt, Ballmer and Cote have each been to the White House more than a half-dozen times, according to Secret Service visitor logs.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett has been hosted by the president at least twice. The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. was also an informal advisor to Obama’s presidential campaign.

To be sure, Obama’s relationship with the broader business community hasn’t been smooth.

Verizon Communications Inc. Chairman Ivan Seidenberg last year said the federal government was “injecting uncertainty into the marketplace” and Mort Zuckerman, chairman of Boston Properties Inc., said the Obama administration was “the most hostile administration to business and to the role of business that we’ve had in decades.”


“There was this perception among business people that he was anti-business and that hurts him,” Kaplan said.

Obama later named Seidenberg to an administration board that promotes exports.

“I think the president has always had a pretty good working relationship with business,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with Obama to New York last week.

Still, Kaplan said he has noticed the administration changing its tone recently to be even more accommodating to businesses, particularly in appointments to the White House staff.

Earlier this month Obama selected William Daley, a JPMorgan Chase executive, as his chief of staff. Kaplan called Daley, who is selling $8.3 million of JPMorgan stock to take an administration job, exactly the kind of “fat-cat” banker, Obama used to deride.

“From Obama’s perspective I think he got the message,” Kaplan said. “He’s decided that he needs to try to be more positive towards business.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Nicholas Johnston in Washington at; Julianna Goldman in Washington at;

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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