Obama to Business: You're So Phony

Is Obama unfriendly to corporate America? In his zeal to deny it, he seemed to confirm it.
Not too tight, please.

I worked for years at the Economist, so I wasn't sure whether to trust my reaction to the magazine's interview with President Barack Obama. Comparing notes with Bloomberg colleagues, I found their reactions similar to mine: Obama was unusually candid, maybe revealing more than he intended. It was almost as though he thought he was off the record.

He does realize, I suppose, that a lot of Americans read the Economist.

The main subject was Africa. (That's the kind of thing Economist readers are interested in.) Obama is hosting leaders from the region at a summit in Washington this week, so this accounts for the timing. But the talk ranged far beyond overseas development.

The most arresting section was about the president's attitude toward U.S. business. Obama deliberately pulled the conversation in that direction, complaining that the Economist often accuses him of being unfriendly to corporate America. In his zeal to refute this charge, he seemed to me to confirm it.

Of course businesses complain about regulation, he said, "That's their job." Then this:

Obama: The business community does have broader responsibilities to the system as a whole. And although the general view today is that the only responsibility that a corporate CEO has is to his shareholders, I think the American people generally sense ...

The Economist: Do you really think that's true? Because when I talk to corporate CEOs, that's one of their complaints. If you ask for a complaint about the White House, they'll say it is the attitude. Every CEO nowadays is involved in nine different social responsibility things -- it's ingrained in most public ...

Obama: Well, I think -- here's what's interesting. There's a huge gap between the professed values and visions of corporate CEOs and how their lobbyists operate in Washington. And I've said this to various CEOs. When they come and they have lunch with me -- which they do more often than they probably care to admit (laughter) -- and they'll say, you know what, we really care about the environment, and we really care about education, and we really care about getting immigration reform done -- then my challenge to them consistently is, is your lobbyist working as hard on those issues as he or she is on preserving that tax break that you've got? And if the answer is no, then you don't care about it as much as you say.

Interesting to see a politician accuse business people of insincerity. Even on the view that executives are entirely self-serving, by the way, you'd expect them to care a lot about education and immigration reform. Aside from that, how peculiar of Obama, pausing briefly from his busy schedule of political fund-raising, to criticize businesses for the effort they put into lobbying. If lobbying didn't work, businesses wouldn't do it. It works because politicians are receptive. That's their job.

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