Obama Tries to Friend the Chamber

Applause lines can reveal a lot about the relationship between a speaker and an audience, and, as President Obama appeared at the Chamber of Commerce today for the overt purpose of developing their relationship, it's probably notable that there were only two moments of genuine clapping (by my count at least).

"I will go anywhere anytime to be a booster for American business," Obama announced midway through the speech, and, for the first time, the audience applauded. "And I don't charge a commission," he followed, grinning. No laughter.

"If I've got one message, my message is: Now is the time to invest in America," Obama said a few minutes later, to more applause.

But that was it. Typically, presidents will get courtesy clapping for lines about how great America is, and how much they love it. Not in this room.

The atmosphere at the Chamber was not jovial, and it was not difficult see why: After the stimulus, the Chamber and the president have been at odds on nearly every major policy initiative. But Obama did his best to lighten things up.

"I'm here in the interest of being more neighborly," Obama said at the beginning of his speech. "Maybe if we'd brought over a fruitcake when I first moved in we would have gotten off to a better start, but I'm going to make up for it."

Most of the speech touched on American innovation and competitiveness, and his message to the Chamber was simple: I'm going to do what I can to make things easier for you, but you have to think about how you can help the country.

"Businesses also have a responsibility to America. I understand the challenges you face, I understand you are under constant pressure to cut costs and keep your margins up," Obama said. "I get it. But as we work with you to make America a better place to do business, I hope all of you are thinking what you can do for America."

Obama advertised some of his extant domestic policy platform as a pro-business agenda. K-12 education reform is about developing a competitive and innovative workforce; health care reform, which the Chamber opposed, is about saving money for businesses.

Much of his speech seemed geared toward promoting the new-look Obama--the one who pledged, during the State of the Union, to remake the federal government, slicing through redundancy and inefficiency in the federal bureaucracy.

"If there are laws on the books that are needlessly stifling innovation and growth, we will fix them," Obama said today.

"We're trying to run the government a little bit more like you run your business," Obama said, pledging again to "merge and consolidate the federal government," promising a streamlined and sensible regulatory structure that would make it easier for businesses to invest and export.

He also took the business community to task for its history of melodramatic complaints against new regulation.

"Early drug companies argued that the law creating the FDA would 'virtually eliminate the sale of remedies in the United States,'" Obama said. "The president of the American Bar Association denounced child labor laws as a 'communistic effort to nationalize children.' ... None of these things came to pass. In fact, companies adapted, and standards often sparked competition and innovation."

Indeed, a big theme for Obama was that regulations aren't always a bad thing. He wants to streamline bureaucracy, he said, but sometimes regulations are good for business as well as everybody else.

The speech had a heavy advertising component, and much of it sounded kind of like the IBM commercials about building a smarter planet.

"That's why we're making investments today in the next generation of big ideas. In biotechnology, in information technology, in clean energy technology," the president intoned hopefully. High-speed rail and high-speed internet were both mentioned.

Toward the end of the speech, Obama got around to something specific he wants from businesses: the spending of money.

"American companies have nearly two trillion dollars sitting on their balance sheets...waiting for demand to rise before getting off the sidelines," Obama said. "Many of your own economists and salespeople are forecasting a healthy increase in demand. So I just want to encourage you to get in the game."

It was a friendly--a very friendly--reminder to business leaders that the economy needs them. So much of the federal government's recession agenda has been about getting money into the economy: The stimulus and the TARP bailout, the two biggest economic policy developments of the last couple years, were designed to increase demand, keep up lending, and support industries like construction, with the goal of getting businesses to hire and invest.

Today, the president simply asked them to spend and expand.

Thumbnail image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images