President Obama opened his remarks at the Business Roundtable Wednesday by wishing the assembled CEOs "Happy holidays," adding, "Hope sales are good." But it was the president who had the big sales job on this day. It was the president who had to persuade those who have bankrolled his opponents, savaged his programs, and quarreled with his aides that his policies really are best for them and their profits.
There was an emphasis on the issues uniting the two sides: trade agreements, corporate tax reform, infrastructure spending, immigration reform. Obama referred to them as "sweet spots for this group." In the end, the president pledged himself "open to common sense," and there was much applause from the CEOs.
But the polite reception and the holiday-fueled bonhomie could not distract from the reality that it will take much more than this visit to the enemy's lair to win over a business community eager to roll back the last six years—particularly one almost giddy over the impending Republican takeover of Congress. After all, this is far from the first time the president has tried to reach out to business. And rarely has the White House achieved the results it wanted.
The relationship did not start out well, with a first-year emphasis on Wall Street reform and banking excesses. For business, the low point may have been the president's December 2009 declaration on CBS's 60 Minutes that "I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers on Wall Street." The president's tone did not change until voters punished Democrats in 2010, giving the House to Republicans. That defeat set off a string of White House moves to win over business.