The White House Doesn't 'Get' Business? I Don't Get It.

One of the memes to mushroom out of the slow recovery is that the White House doesn't "get" business. Having never worked for the White House or managed a business, I haven't the slightest idea how to seduce business owners to hire people. But Roger C. Altman has worked for the White House (as deputy Treasury Secretary under Clinton), and he has managed plenty of businesses. Surely he knows what policy stimuli make employers start adding workers, reflexively.

"What adjustments should President Obama make to repair ties with business?" he asks. And he answers:

(1) He should recruit "a senior industry figure" for a major economic policy position.

(2) He should focus on the deficit next year.

(3) He should stop using the word "reckless" and should "better distinguish between Wall Street, Big Oil and health insurers, which have all incurred public wrath, and the majority of businesses, which haven't."

Not terrible ideas, but not terribly provocative either. A smart senior industry figure has 1,000 words to draw up his own business confidence stimulus, and he comes up with ... hire another senior industry figure to figure this stuff out? Fix the deficit next year is a plan, for the future, to make a plan for the future. It's not bad advice, but it's not exactly actionable. Third, as an obligated consumer of the president's rhetoric, I can't find any occasions where he used the word reckless, except for BP and financial companies. (Moreover, I think the author falls into his own trap by suggesting that "all" health insurers deserve the public's wrath, and the scarlet R.)

The point isn't really to bash Altman, who's written a mostly thoughtful piece. It's to draw attention to the difficulty of designing a public policy to increase business confidence when the economy is droopy. Two of Altman's three adjustments are to personnel and style -- the president should hire a CEO and a speechwriter -- rather than to policy.

We don't really know why businesses are sitting on their money rather than hiring and investing. Maybe it's the massive unemployment and two-year debt deleveraging project of the American consumer. Maybe it's the twice-shyness of companies after the credit bite. Maybe it's the prospect of tax increases. Maybe they just don't think the economy is immune to another dip, and they're worried about sunk costs. I don't know. But given the ubiquity of this 'White House doesn't get business' meme, it's surprising to see that nobody else seems to 'get' business, either.