Can a CEO Sell Obama's Manufacturing Vision?

As the president looks for partners in business, Dow Chemical's Andrew Liveris has emerged as a champion of government helping the private sector

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Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris. Image credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Last January, Andrew Liveris, the CEO of Dow Chemical, published a book called Make it in America that laid out a path for the United States to reclaim its onetime manufacturing dominance. Four pages into his preface, he warned readers to expect a surprise. "If you picked [the book] up thinking this was another long complaint by another CEO who wants nothing more than for government to back off, recede from the picture, do nothing, and let the markets rule," he wrote, "then I'm afraid you'll be disappointed."

Indeed, they would. The book details an ambitious agenda to set U.S. manufacturing back on a course for success, arguing that if the country cedes production of all the high-tech gadgets it produces, it will also lose the competitive edge on future innovation. Liveris calls for rebuilding the country's crumbling infrastructure; overhauling the education system to include a greater focus on science, math, and engineering; bulking up the clean-energy industry; making the tax code more competitive; and streamlining regulations -- all in partnership with, not opposition to, the government.

Sound familiar? It should. Liveris' framework bears a striking resemblance to the economic vision that President Obama put forth in his January 25 State of the Union address mere weeks after Make it in America hit stores - one that includes regulatory overhaul, an infrastructure bank, a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act and more investment in research and development.

It's difficult to say whether Liveris' work inspired the administration's policies. White House officials demur when asked about the similarities between the two plans, but they readily admit that the CEO has an audience within the upper echelons. The administration values Liveris' voice "enormously," Ron Bloom, Obama's assistant for manufacturing policy, told National Journal. "He's a passionate advocate for good public policy, but he's not just saying, 'You go do this.' He's saying that business has a responsibility, too."

Since Obama took office, Liveris has been a regular presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He sits on the president's Export Council and the U.S.-India CEO Forum. His name has appeared in White House visitor logs at least eight times in the past two-and-a-half years, including attendance of a private meeting with then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in February 2010 and other small meetings with high-level advisers. Liveris was included in a gathering of 18 CEOs from the U.S. and China that met with Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao during the latter's state visit to the U.S. in January. He and his wife, Paula, were also invited to a Kennedy Center Honors reception hosted by the president and first lady in December 2009.

So on June 14, it was not all that surprising that Bloom, who previously headed the restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler, called Liveris and asked him to cochair a new public-private partnership focused on high-tech manufacturing. Liveris accepted. Ten days later, he appeared with Obama at Carnegie Mellon University to announce the creation of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. It's an effort few Americans have ever heard of, yet one whose success could help to revitalize a sector not only critical to the American economy but that also employs many of its 11.7 million workers in swing states.

The initiative seeks to bolster so-called "advanced" manufacturing, which aims to improve the cost, quality, and efficiency of building materials, and does so in a way that's meant to demonstrate real commitment without raising spending. The plan is to pour $500 million into various federal departments and research projects - particularly in the defense industry -- although that money is leveraged from existing funds.

For the government, it's a chance to ensure that the American manufacturing sector doesn't continue to cede its position in the worldwide economy and to create much-needed jobs across the country. And Dow has the chance to put its own stamp on the future of American manufacturing. Last year, Liveris released Dow's Advanced Manufacturing Plan, a collection of public-policy recommendations he makes in his book that are meant to boost the sector. At the helm of the partnership, he'll have the platform to promote some of those proposals.

The partnership also represents a chance for the president to stabilize and grow the economy without the help of Congress, which may very well be the status quo over the next year. Both the recovery and Obama's hopes for a second term may depend on the president's ability to coax the private sector to partner with government and boost hiring across the country. That effort, in turn, could depend on whether Obama can get the business community back on his side.

That relationship was battered during fights over the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law, and it remains strained over perceived overregulation by administrative agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Rebecca Kaplan is a staff writer (White House) for National Journal.

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