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.
Less than a week after that election, the president returned to 60 Minutes to lament what he called a "strained" relationship with business. "I think that we've got some repair work to do there," he grimly acknowledged. Then-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs promised National Journal "a tonal or stylistic change," saying, "I do think people in business need to know that we have a vested stake in them succeeding."
The "repair work" and the stylistic change started with the naming of the business-friendly William Daley as White House chief of staff two months after the election. That was followed quickly by an outreach to business in the State of the Union address, promises to review regulations, backing for trade deals, a trip to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters in February, and the appointment of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness two weeks later. Then, in May, there was a White House summit with 20 CEOs in which he said, "We want to be boosters" of business. A month later, Daley held a contentious summit with manufacturing CEOs. And in October, he helped push through trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama.
With that, the White House outreach to business peaked and things began to backslide. By November, Daley had been pushed aside and would finally leave the White House in January 2012. In July, the president alienated business by informing business executives that "if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. ... If you've got a business, you didn't build that." In January 2013, the Jobs Council headed by Immelt was shut down. By August 2014, the president was saying business leaders should stop complaining about regulations and government. "I would take the complaints of the corporate community with a grain of salt," he said in an interview with the Economist magazine.
But the pattern repeats. Once again, Democrats were clobbered in a midterm election in which Republicans hit hard on what they called a "jobs-destroying, antibusiness" White House. And once again, that White House is trying to reach out to the business community. But this time, rebuilding the relationship will be more challenging. A sixth-year president must offer more than the "tonal or stylistic change" of the third year. And the challenges are fast-arriving. The fight over tax extenders must be settled before Christmas. And negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership are reaching a crucial stage.
Additionally, today's anger by business executives over three lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is very real and immediate. Those executives generally have been supportive of Obamacare and embraced its emphasis on wellness programs. They feel ambushed by EEOC suits against employers for imposing blood pressure and cholesterol screenings that are not "voluntary." Press secretary Josh Earnest protested Wednesday that the EEOC is independent and "not an agency over which we exercise much, if any, control." He noted that the White House was "responsive to concerns from the business community and, in fact, put into the Affordable Care Act some of the priorities that the business community had articulated about ways to successfully reduce their costs."
Further complicating the White House outreach is the watchfulness of Democratic progressives, who are normally allies of the president but still angry that he didn't strike a more populist tone in the midterm elections, believing that would have been more successful. They reacted quickly to Wednesday's meeting at the Business Roundtable. Obama "should spend his final two years in office pushing an economic populist agenda like Elizabeth Warren's, not delivering more giveaways to big business," said T.J. Helmstetter, a spokesman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, adding that trade deals and corporate tax cuts "are not the kind of big ideas that voters are looking for."
With progressives watching, independent agencies like the EEOC undermining dealings with business, and Republicans ready to launch their offensive in January, there is reason for the evident White House frustration. The president clearly wants better relations with the business community today as much as he did when he took the short trek across Lafayette Park to meet with the Chamber of Commerce in February 2011. At that meeting, Obama joked, "Maybe if we had brought a fruitcake when I first moved in, we would have gotten off to a better start." Even in this Christmas season, though, it's going to take more than a holiday fruitcake and a meeting with CEOs to repair a badly damaged relationship.