WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, trying to boost anemic job creation and improve testy relations with the corporate community, said Wednesday he wants ideas from business leaders on to “seize the promise of this moment.”
The president spoke just ahead of a meeting with some of the nation’s top CEO’s, framing expectations and goals for a closely watched session that he arranged. Obama, who has tussled with the business world over taxes, his health care law, bonus pay and corporate responsibility, is seeking more coordination.
“I hope to elicit ideas from these business leaders that will help us not only climb out of recession, but seize the promise of this moment,” the president said. He spoke of tax reform, regulation that won’t undermine growth, and ways to get businesses to invest and stop holding “nearly 2 trillion dollars on their books.”
With new tax and trade deals as enticements, Obama is taking yet another step toward the political middle as he moves to confront a still-weak economic recovery and the capital’s new political alignment.
Both sides came to Wednesday’s session with their respective wishes: Obama wanted the private sector to use its record profits to increase employment; executives wanted the administration to back off on regulations they perceive as onerous.
In his comments, Obama pushed his agenda of investment education, cleaner energy sources and high-speed rail. And he spoke of making a firmer stand in Washington about fiscal discipline, an area where Congress and White House have long made promises but had trouble keeping them.
Overall, Obama said the path to economic growth is clear and added: “I’m committed to taking that path. I know America’s business leaders are as well.”
The president then made the short walk from the White House grounds across Pennsylvania Avenue to the Blair House to join up with the CEO’s.
The executives include Obama backers and members of White House advisory boards who have worked with the administration for some time.
Among them are Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive who served as finance chair of Obama’s presidential campaign, and Robert Wolf of UBS, a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, an Obama golfing partner and a Democratic fundraiser.
Others scheduled to attend are well known to the president, including American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers and Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
But there are past critics in the group, too. Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, has complained that “government and entrepreneurs are not in sync.” And he has called for progress in shaping an energy policy. “Our policy is uncertainty,” he said in June.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, released from the hospital days ago after undergoing treatment for a kidney stone, was expected to participate, too.
Don’t count on the president to reprise the “fat cat” scolding he gave bankers a year ago.
For Obama and the business sector, Wednesday’s meeting is more of a wary embrace.
“We have to be competitive and the private sector needs to stand up,” said Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. “There is opportunity perhaps in the fact that the corporate sector has begun to rebound and there is cash on their balance sheets.”
Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said some companies are recovering, others are waiting for demand to increase and others are “looking for some certainty in the regulatory environment.”
Obama’s outreach clearly meets the White House’s goal of sharpening his image as a president willing to reach out to former antagonists, a move that has angered liberals but could resonate with independent voters.
The steps are not lost on the executives.
“The president himself, after the elections, has come out and said, ‘Perhaps I have not been as friendly to business as I should have been,'” said PepsiCo chair and CEO Indra Nooyi.
Wednesday’s meeting comes as the business sector has tempered its past criticism. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue has said his organization wants to cooperate with the administration, as it did on the recent South Korea trade agreement.
“The president’s shown a willingness to learn,” Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg, the chairman of the Business Roundtable, said last week.