President Obama is offering a theory of the modern CEO: the enlightened captive.
He said that on topics including the environment and education, CEOs who say they want to act in the public interest are stymied by Capitol Hill Republicans or may not be pushing their own lobbyists hard enough.
"There's a huge gap between the professed values and visions of corporate CEOs and how their lobbyists operate in Washington," Obama told The Economist in the interview published Saturday. Obama said he has a challenge for CEOs: "[I]s 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."
He applauds business community efforts to win immigration policy changes, but says business leaders are running up against a GOP that sees the need for an overhaul yet is "captive to the nativist elements in its party."
What about climate change? Obama said CEOs, as a population, have split with "denialists." "There aren't any corporate CEOs that you talk to, at least outside of maybe—no, I will include CEOs of the fossil-fuel industries—who are still denying that climate change is a factor," he said.
This real-or-not-real framing is helpful to Obama at a time when many Republicans remain climate-change skeptics. But if these CEOs may split with the GOP on science, when it comes to policy, the common ground between business groups and Republicans remains a huge piece of real estate.
Sure, a number of major companies back the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Corporations signed on to a supportive letter to Obama in June included Nike, Unilever, Levi Strauss, and others.
But in the main, powerful business and industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are battling the EPA plan at the heart of Obama's second-term climate agenda.
Obama, however, told The Economist that CEOs' overriding interest is in predictability.
"What they want is some certainty around the regulations, so that they can start planning. Given the capital investments that they have to make, they're looking at 20-, 30-year investments. They've got to know now, are we pricing carbon? Are we serious about this? But none of them are engaging in some of the nonsense that you're hearing out of the climate-change denialists," he said.