Business, Obama-Style

His proposals and advisers don't always fit neatly into the left-leaning Democrat mold
"Barack Obama at a fundraiser in Richmond, Va., Feb. 8, 2008" Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Sunday, Feb. 10, after finding that he'd won the Maine caucus and before his appearance on CBS's (CBS) 60 Minutes, Senator Barack Obama sat down to type out an e-mail. Not to a media consultant or a delegate counter, but to a banker—UBS Americas CEO Robert Wolf. The two men exchanged notes about the economic stimulus package and that weekend's G-7 summit.

Obama has other business types for pen pals. He consults with billionaire Warren E. Buffett, who supports his proposed rollback of the Bush tax cuts—and who is often cited in the Obama stump speech. Obama talks monetary policy with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, who recently boarded the Obama bandwagon. And there's a network of lesser-known but powerful executives like Wolf who talk to Obama about everything from the subprime crisis to the dollar. "When I sat down with him, I found him unbelievably refreshing and smart," says Wolf, who first met Obama at the offices of financier George Soros. Wolf has raised more than $1 million for the Obama campaign.

So what would an Obama Presidency look like for business? "He has been pretty clear that business would have a seat at the table but wouldn't be able to buy all the chairs," says unaligned Democratic political consultant Steve McMahon.


Both as a state senator in Illinois and later in Washington, Obama has backed traditional Democratic causes, from union labor to the earned income tax credit to amending NAFTA. In remarks at the Janesville (Wis.) General Motors plant on Feb. 13, Obama called for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that would invest $60 billion over 10 years, funded by ending the war in Iraq. He reiterated his calls for a fund for victims of mortgage fraud, a college tax credit, and an expansion of the child-care tax credit for people making less than $50,000 a year. And he proposed a "Credit Card Bill of Rights," which would ban unilateral changes to credit-card agreements and put a stop to interest-rate hikes for existing debt. GOP activist Grover Norquist called the speech "wonderfully horrific—it's tax and spend, regulate everything."

But Obama has also taken steps that aren't typical of a liberal senator. He voted for a bill in '05 that made life harder for trial lawyers—a traditional Democratic constituency—by allowing defendants to shift cases more easily to federal court, which can be less favorable to plaintiffs. He pushed an outside-the-box proposal to help Detroit automakers pay legacy health-care costs on the condition they put the savings into hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars.

Some of the names that might fill in the org chart of an Obama Administration are also telling. One is University of Chicago professor Austan Goolsbee, his chief economic adviser. Goolsbee likes to make economic initiatives easy to understand and use, an effort Obama calls "iPod government."

On the campaign trail, Obama and Goolsbee have crafted proposals to streamline government programs like the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, which Goolsbee feels is too complicated. Same with student loan applications and tax forms. Obama would also promote savings through an automatic 3% withholding from every paycheck—though employees could opt out. The idea is to "think of these policies from the perspective of the people who use them, not from the perspective of the people who issue them," says Goolsbee. Such tactics to simplify government programs "almost sound like Republican mechanisms," he adds. "But you can see how they have Democratic objectives."

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