President Obama just wrapped up a lunchtime speech at the US Chamber of Commerce, and the effort at groveling and currying favor was probably laid on thicker than the butter on the bread rolls:
President Obama on Monday pledged that his administration would be a strong partner with business in working to boost the American economy and called for an equal effort to restore a fading sense of the American dream.
In a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Obama channeled John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address as he sought a fresh start with the nation’s most powerful business lobby.
“Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America,” he said. “As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, I’m hoping that you are all thinking about what you can do for America.”
The President defended some of his actions that the Chamber opposed, but he foregrounded renewed efforts to cut “needless and confusing regulations,” among other areas of common ground. Needless to say, criticism of the Chamber’s political spending did not make it into the speech. And yet, even where you expected potential applause lines, the crowd sat stone-faced.
And that’s really the point. The Administration seeks a truce between him and the business community, or at least a way to show himself as a business-friendly moderate to the 2012 general electorate. The President’s advisors thinks they can’t win next year without a business-friendly position, both to head off mountains of campaign spending and for political positioning. I think that completely misreads how political campaigns, particularly Presidential campaigns, get won in the modern age. The economy, for all intents and purposes, is the key determinant. And not the economy of corporate profits and stock markets, but the economy people feel and touch in their daily lives. And that’s why this story should weigh far heavier on the minds of the Obama campaign team than any need to suck up to the titans of industry:
With 73% of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index by market value having reported fourth-quarter results, earnings are up 28% from a year earlier and sales are up 7.7%. But the contrast between profit and job growth remains a big hurdle for companies hoping to keep expanding their business [...]
The lack of significant job gains 18 months after the recession was declared over isn’t such a mystery when considering how companies were able to return to strong profit growth in a relatively short period. They mainly relied on aggressive job cuts, and with companies now pleased with their revitalized earnings and demand still choppy, they seem to be in no hurry to add to their payrolls.
There are exceptions. Strong exports of energy and grains have farm suppliers and railroads hiring new employees. Retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that curbed expansion plans or shuttered concept stores during the downturn are taking advantage of lower rents to open new outlets, adding to their work force. (See related article on B6.)
But more broadly, companies’ outlooks for 2011 have revealed a fresh reason to hold off on hiring: A wide range of industries—as diverse as airlines, appliance makers, auto companies and food sellers—are dealing with sharply higher costs from spiking commodity prices. That is pressuring profit margins and keeping companies guarded about adding to labor costs.
You’re seeing a never-ending jobs crisis combined with a wage crisis: what jobs are being created are coming in lower-income sectors like retail. The consumers who drive much of the economy cannot afford to purchase the goods they produce. Corporations can make good out of this by moving to emerging markets abroad to make profits. This helps their bottom line and does nothing for the broad mass of American workers.
That’s the conundrum that the President faces, and making a speech in front of captains of industry (for which he did take criticism) won’t solve it. That’s because fundamentally, the well-heeled executives at the Chamber don’t want to solve it. That’s why, on the day of the speech, you saw the news that the Chamber opposes continued sanctions on Iran. They want to keep those other markets pried open; America is simply not central to their business plan. Solving that is the key to the future, not more tax cuts and nice talk.
Now, the Chamber of Commerce isn’t the only group that has criticized and actively worked against the President’s agenda for the past two years. So I expect we’ll see Obama head over to Heritage and AEI next.
UPDATE: Christy Setzer of US Chamber Watch offered this take:
“Colin Powell used to refer to the ‘Pottery Barn law’ about Iraq: ‘You break it, you own it.’ Well, the US Chamber and their buddies on Wall Street worked overtime to break the American economy, but they’ve managed to avoid any responsibility for owning it. While President Obama calls on businesses to invest in America, the only thing the US Chamber’s investing in is their own bottom line — lining the pockets of corporate CEOs while shipping the jobs of hard-working Americans overseas.”
…and here’s the meat of the pitch from the President:
So if I’ve got one message, my message is now is the time to invest in America. Now is the time to invest in America. (Applause.) Today, American companies have nearly $2 trillion sitting on their balance sheets. And I know that many of you have told me that you’re waiting for demand to rise before you get off the sidelines and expand, and that with millions of Americans out of work, demand has risen more slowly than any of us would like.
We’re in this together, but many of your own economists and salespeople are now forecasting a healthy increase in demand. So I just want to encourage you to get in the game.
At least he asked the $64,000 question. But I’m at a loss to understand why corporate actors making record profits would agree to this. Their business model is sustainable even if America isn’t. They’ll invest if they can make money off the investment, period, full stop.