Obama to Business: Be Grateful I Saved This Economy

Does President Obama hate businesspeople? No, according to President Obama. The second thing that I took away from that BusinessWeek interview was a sense that the president seemed a little irked by suggestions that he was anti-business.

"A number of those who think we're antibusiness seem to forget that it was just three or four months ago when, at great political expense, we yanked them out of the fire. And they still--at least if they're in the financial sector--are enjoying a whole bunch of government guarantees that are propping up their business models. So it's hard for me not to be a little skeptical when I hear that somehow we've been antibusiness...

Example No. 2 has to do with GM and Chrysler. The perception was that we were not being sufficiently friendly to the bondholders in that situation. Once again I'd like to point out that most of these bondholders, many of whom were hedge funds, would have lost everything they had, had it not been for the extraordinary interventions that we made in the financial system. They had no problem with government intervention if it was helping them. When, on the other hand, we say that to ensure that GM and Chrysler survive, the intervention involves everybody taking a haircut and making some decisions about how we spread the pain more equitably, [they say,] "Well, a contract's a contract. You can't intervene like this. This is government meddling." There's a selectivity to how businesses perceived some of the more extraordinary actions we've had to take."

I was not in the room when Obama said these words to BusinessWeek editor-in-chief Stephen Adler and Washington Bureau Chief Jane Sasseen. But I get the distinct sense from the transcript that he's a bit miffed by the accusations that he's anti-business. He emphasizes (possibly even exaggerates) the "great political expense" with which he bailed out the banks. He seems to accuse the the car companies' bondholders of "a selectivity" -- which is a gentlemanly term for hypocrisy -- when they moan about a haircut when the government could have stood to the side and let General Motors' go bald.

Obama's right that the government's extraordinary steps to rescue the economy used trillions of taxpayer dollars to rescue companies facing bankruptcy, and it's hard to see the bailout as anti-business. But he's also being a little duplicitous when he says, "I haven't signed a bill that's raised taxes yet." But you will, is the point! "To the extent that we have put in place policies, they've all been directed at helping businesses," he says.

Obama might believe that, and he might even be right, but a policy directed at helping businesses can still be seen as anti-business. The business community has already balked at reforming health care, re-regulating banking by requiring lower asset-to-capital ratios, proposing a consumer protection bill and rewriting credit card laws -- not to mention raising taxes on the top one percent. Again, I see good reasons to support all these measures, but I'm also prepared to be called "anti-business" for supporting them. Obama must understand that his own good intentions will not be sufficient to convince the business community that he is on their side.