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Tilting at Windmills

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February 8, 2011

OBAMA'S CHALLENGE TO THE CHAMBER.... When the White House announced that President Obama had agreed to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the groans from the left were understandable. Chamber chief Tom Donohue and his massive business lobby had become one of the president's fiercest adversaries, and the fear was that Obama would kowtow in his appearance, as part of some murky "shift to the center."

If you haven't seen or heard the remarks, they're worth checking out. The president didn't go the Chamber to be conciliatory; he went to the Chamber to challenge them. While there were expectations that Obama might move from his agenda and make concessions intended to please the business lobby, by most measures, the president did the exact opposite.

Much of the coverage of the speech is focusing on Obama urging businesses to "get in the game," "get off the sidelines," and "invest in America." The president explained to his audience, "As all of you know, it's investments made now that will pay off as the economy rebounds. And as you hire, you know that more Americans working will mean more sales for your companies. It will mean more demand for your products and services. It will mean higher profits for your companies. We can create a virtuous circle."

And while that was important, it wasn't really the point of the president's appearance. Rather, Obama was there to present an argument, and defend its tenets -- government activism is necessary to boost the private sector, and businesses have to take their civic responsibilities seriously if they expect to thrive.

On the first point, the president explained quite well that public-sector efforts lay a foundation for private-sector growth.

"As a government, we will help lay the foundation for you to grow and innovate and succeed. We will upgrade our transportation and communication networks so you can move goods and information more quickly and more cheaply. We'll invest in education so that you can hire the most skilled, talented workers in the world. And we'll work to knock down barriers that make it harder for you to compete, from the tax code to the regulatory system. [...]

"Companies like yours have always driven the discovery of new products and new ideas. You do it better than anybody. But what you also know is that it's not always profitable to -- in the short-term, at least -- for you to invest in basic research. It's very expensive, and the payoffs are not always clear and they're not always localized. And that's why government has traditionally helped invest in this kind of science, planting the seeds that ultimately grew into technologies from the computer chips to the Internet. [...]

"We also have a responsibility as a nation to provide our people with -- and our businesses -- with the fastest, most reliable way to move goods and information. The costs to business from outdated and inadequate infrastructure is enormous. And that's what we have right now -- outdated, inadequate infrastructure."

On a related note, Obama went on defend regulations to an audience that exists to hate regulations.

"Even as we eliminate burdensome regulations, America's businesses have a responsibility as well to recognize that there are some basic safeguards, some basic standards that are necessary to protect the American people from harm or exploitation. Not every regulation is bad. Not every regulation is burdensome on business. A lot of the regulations that are out there are things that all of us welcome in our lives.

"Few of us would want to live in a society without rules that keep our air and water clean; that give consumers the confidence to do everything from investing in financial markets to buying groceries. And the fact is, when standards like these have been proposed in the past, opponents have often warned that they would be an assault on business and free enterprise. We can look at the history in this country. Early drug companies argued the bill creating the FDA would 'practically destroy the sale of ... remedies in the United States.' That didn't happen. Auto executives predicted that having to install seatbelts would bring the downfall of their industry. It didn't happen. The President of the American Bar Association denounced child labor laws as 'a communistic effort to nationalize children.' That's a quote.

"None of these things came to pass. In fact, companies adapt and standards often spark competition and innovation. I was travelling when I went up to Penn State to look at some clean energy hubs that have been set up. I was with Steve Chu, my Secretary of Energy. And he won a Nobel Prize in physics, so when you're in conversations with him you catch about one out of every four things he says.

"But he started talking about energy efficiency and about refrigerators, and he pointed out that the government set modest targets a couple decades ago to start increasing efficiency over time. They were well thought through; they weren't radical. Companies competed to hit these markers. And they hit them every time, and then exceeded them. And as a result, a typical fridge now costs half as much and uses a quarter of the energy that it once did -- and you don't have to defrost, chipping at that stuff -- and then putting the warm water inside the freezer and all that stuff. It saves families and businesses billions of dollars.

"So regulations didn't destroy the industry; it enhanced it and it made our lives better -- if they're smart, if they're well designed.... [T]he perils of too much regulation are also matched by the dangers of too little."

The president went on to explain why Wall Street reform is good for the financial industry, and health care reform is good for businesses large and small.

The concerns that Obama might somehow show up at the USCOC event to kiss Donohue's ring and promise to be more appeasing towards the business lobby were largely backwards. The president effectively brought his longstanding agenda to the Chamber, made a compelling case why it'd be good for them, and challenged them to get on board.

There's a very good reason the AFL-CIO liked what it heard.

Update: Jed Lewison added, "I never would have predicted that President Obama would give a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he explained why economic inequality threatens America and telling them that they share some of the responsibility for closing the gap. But that's exactly what he did."

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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Comments

"shift to the center"

You mean he's gonna move to the left?

Posted by: haystack calhoun on February 8, 2011 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

Shorter Chamber Response:

No

Posted by: Tired of That on February 8, 2011 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

"The perils of too much regulation are also matched by the dangers of too little."
BINGO!
Though I'd err on the side of more rather than less.

It seemed like a very good message. Perhaps he's finding his voice again after a couple of years.

I know a lot of people have problems with him, as do I - he's not liberal enough - but who would be better right now?

And think of the alternative if you insist on primarying him.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on February 8, 2011 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

Business will go on an investment strike in order to bring Obama down in 2012. The new GOP President will then, according to the scenario, give them everything they want.

Posted by: davidp on February 8, 2011 at 8:58 AM | PERMALINK

The entire audience is composed of bald, old, white men....shocking.

Posted by: ckelly on February 8, 2011 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

When people ask me to join the local Chamber of Commerce they are surprised by how vehemently I refuse. I explain that if I were to join the local C of C, part of my dues would support the national C of C.

The success of my business is not affected by how much a billionaire pays in taxes. It isn't even affected by how much a whole gang millionaires pay in taxes. My business, as well as every other business up and down my street, depends on thousands of middle class workers having jobs that pay well enough that they have a little left over at the end of the month to spend at my business.

For years, the focus U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been to support Supply-side economic policies intended to drive down the wages of workers. At the same time the Chamber has worked relentlessly to insure that the tax burden of billionaires and multi-millionaires was shifted onto the backs of the shrinking middle class.

As far as I'm concerned, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is more anti-business than the Chinese Communist Party.

Posted by: SteveT on February 8, 2011 at 9:17 AM | PERMALINK

business lobby had become one of the president's fiercest adversaries,
FWIW, NPR described the CoC as Obama's "enemies."

And the gasbag whining from the attendees was astonishing in its self-centered obliviousness to reality. Which I guess can be shortened to "Republicanism."

Posted by: martin on February 8, 2011 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

Call me cynical, but he was there to ask for money for his re-election. All sub rosa, of course. . .

Posted by: DAY on February 8, 2011 at 9:21 AM | PERMALINK

THATS where all the WaMu bankers ended up!

Posted by: ComradeAnon on February 8, 2011 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

it was a good speech. I liked it.

Posted by: rikyrah on February 8, 2011 at 9:34 AM | PERMALINK

Only a good old redneck could disagree ,
Only a casuist could argue ,
Only a sociopath could wish ill .

Posted by: FRP on February 8, 2011 at 9:35 AM | PERMALINK

Nobody saw that speech, but millions saw Jim Cramer on the Today Show this morning saying that Obama is hostile to business and the problem is too much regulation. So ...

Posted by: Dan on February 8, 2011 at 9:35 AM | PERMALINK

Trifecta

Posted by: FRP on February 8, 2011 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

Isn't there anyone left in this fading republic who understands that the purpose of a wealthy fat cat business asshole is *NOT* to "grow the economy"? Their purpose is to make more money. And when the game is tilted so far in their favor that everyone else is farming dirt, they do pretty well.

When they have disposable labor who they can treat as slaves and not have to shell out lots of money for, and no regulations that make them responsible to the society they're exploiting, and a government that makes them at least equal partners (if not the boss outright), then and only then will they stop whining like mules about how unfair life is.

Posted by: Shade Tail on February 8, 2011 at 9:42 AM | PERMALINK

My problem with the speech is that the President continues to buy into the top-down supply-side economic system. Corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars for one reason--demand is low. Put money into workers hands with large public-works projects, and demand will grow and these businesses will invest.

Posted by: Ace Bailey on February 8, 2011 at 9:45 AM | PERMALINK

No DAY, you're not cynical, you're lying.

Posted by: Alli on February 8, 2011 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

Ever so nice of the Chamber to allow the President to drop by their district office instead of having him fly to their corportate HQ in Beijing.

Posted by: berttheclock on February 8, 2011 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

While he echoed the themes of Kennedy he did not offer specifics for oligarchical multinational corporations to follow or even change. For example while asking to become a bigger exporter from here(sorry Mr President the days of mercantilism are over) he did not say go compete as "capitalists" by saying its time to gut the subsidies that allow you to export jobs overseas. He did not say he would engage in counter measures to ensure fair trade by say preventing import of anything from the PRC as long as they flout rules on intellectual material.
He proposed more investment in basic research w/ no proposal for a return of investment to the tax payer.
His proposals for more educational reform is a continuation of pissing in the wind as school control is done locally. If we had or he proposed a jr/community public school policy whereby educators and business's could create curriculum that would provide basic education for these "new" green jobs you could see a path to follow
What has has done is what he has always done w/ the exception of the auto company reorganizations. That is go out an sing "Aloha spirit" to everyone and keep letting the oligarchical multinational companies have their way w/ the American public w/ no return to the taxpayer.

Posted by: RobM on February 8, 2011 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

Civic Responsibilities

Well, that outlined the issue perfectly for us "small people" - and should provide a "frame" for interpreting the USCoC's response.

As many have pointed out, the USCoC is in it for the billionaires and millionaires. But more than that - they're for the big multinationals, who feel they owe nothing to the US in the first place. The "US" in "US Chamber of Commerce" doesn't stand for "United States"; it stands for them.

The USCoC members outsource jobs, fight for reduced safety for workers, and oppose quality/safety regulation by the government.

They make it clear that "business values" are always preceded by "$" (or Euro, Yen, Pound, etc.)

Now Americans can compare the President's request that businesses show responsibility and help the country to recover with what businesses and the Chamber say and do as a result.

I predict it won't be pretty.

Posted by: zandru on February 8, 2011 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

"The groans from the left were understandable"?

Well 'the left' runs the risk of being discarded into history's bin of irrelevance if it fails to see the need or value in engaging its opposition. Fact is the left must coexist with these short-sighted mongrels of capitalism and ignoring them, or throwing tantrums, won't make them go away.

Frankly I think most on 'the left' get this and this whole premise of liberal outrage is aimed at shoring up O's business friendly cred.

Posted by: JRinDallas on February 8, 2011 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

What a steaming load off bullshit Steve Benen is peddling.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is an enemy of liberalism and the interests of 98% of Americans.

If you believe in a strong middle class, the Chamber is your enemy.

If you believe in labor standards, the Chamber is your enemy.

If you believe in a environmental protections, the Chamber is your enemy.

If you believe that climate change is real and a threat to life as we know it, the Chamber is your enemy.

And if you believe in a vibrant American economy, the Chamber is your enemy.

They are not your neighbor. They are not your partner. They are not your friend. They are not patriotic. And they don't give a fuck about you, your family, or your anyone else.

President Obama had a choice. He could work with real, patriotic American business leaders and marginalize the Chamber as tool of foreign and multinational corporations. Or he could do what he did, which was legitimize the Chamber and make it stronger. He made a bad choice. A stupid choice. And one for which the rest of us will pay dearly.

Posted by: square1 on February 8, 2011 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

Beyond the stupidity of the politics, I am just stunned at the economic ignorance of this President. If nothing else, I thought we elected a smart guy.

Why does he keep going around asking corporations to do the right thing?

Incentives dictate outcomes. If you want businesses to stop sitting on cash and reinvest then you give them an incentive to do so. You don't ask them "pretty please?"

How do you get companies to stop sitting on cash? Create mildly inflationary policies. Then companies will decide to spend their money now instead of letting it dwindle away.

I will let genuine economists debate which fiscal and monetary tools are most appropriate to accomplish this goal. But the point remains: Don't ask business to do what you want. Just create the right incentives and sit back and let the results take care of themselves.

Posted by: square1 on February 8, 2011 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

Nice speech, but it's really political kabuki. I'm glad Obama said what he said, instead of outright pandering to the CoC, but as pointed out by others, the purpose of business is to make money. The purpose of government (hint: of the people, for the people)is to manage society for the overall benefit (hint: general welfare).

Yes, it would have been nicer to hear Obama tell the CoC that we're going to tax and regulate them until their heads spin, but those goals are not possible in the current political climate.

Posted by: Rugosa on February 8, 2011 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

What the hell does it tell us when a US President has to give a Civics 101 lecture to the most powerful business lobby in the nation?

Posted by: Sarcastro on February 8, 2011 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

The US Chamber of Commerce is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel corporations, and its agenda is to perpetuate business-as-usual consumption of coal, oil and gas for as long as possible, at any cost.

Obama can talk all he wants about "innovation" and "investment" and it won't matter, because the C.O.C. is oppposed to the innovations and investments that he has in mind (except for the nuclear power boondoggle and the "clean coal" fraud) -- because those innovations and investments threaten to diminish the BILLION DOLLAR PER DAY PROFITS of the fossil fuel corporations.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 8, 2011 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

Obama is setting up the CoC and the Republicans as anti-American job-killers in 2012.

Right wingers, including CoC types, like to say that the private sector creates jobs and the government destroys them. Obama is preparing the field to use both of these assertions against them in 2012.

Obama is telling them: It's your responsibility to create jobs in the United States. If you create jobs in China but not here, well, you'll have to make the political argument in 2012 that you're doing what's right for the country.*

At the same time, Obama is making a strong argument that government indeed does create jobs, and it builds and maintains the infrastructure necessary for job creation. The Dems have soft-pedaled this argument in recent years and Obama is bringing it back.

* And if the CoC replies that businesses aren't in business to do "what's right for the country," Obama can ask why they spend so much money on lobbying and campaign contributions. Are they spending that money to benefit corporations while harming the country? These questions have the potential of uniting Democrats, while dividing Republicans and big businesses.

Posted by: Holdie on February 8, 2011 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

c u n d gulag says: "And think of the alternative if you insist on primarying him."

Umm... to judge by recent primaries, he'd move (at least rhetorically) to the left to try to win the nomination, like Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln and the dearly departing Jane Harman. Sounds like a good thing to me.

Posted by: Tom Allen on February 8, 2011 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

@Holdie:
Obama is setting up the CoC and the Republicans as anti-American job-killers in 2012.

This is a joke. Obama isn't setting up anyone except himself.

If you want voters to think that you mean what you say, don't "pivot" every five minutes.

In the run-up to the mid-term election Obama accused the Chamber of receiving foreign money and "spending huge sums to influence American elections." But now Obama wants us to believe that the Chamber is our "neighbor" and a partner.

Most voters are going to assume that when Obama was whining about the Chamber being foreign-funded that it was just sour grapes because they picked the GOP over the Dems. And in 2012, if the Dems try to complain about the Chamber, voters will think "I thought you guys were partners. This must just be election-season nonsense."

This is why Democrats lose. They "pivot" during election season and everyone thinks that Democrats are full of shit. And the elected Democrats pretty much are full of shit.

OTOH, Republicans stay on message 24/7/365. During elections and not during elections.

The reason that many voters don't laugh at the GOP when they call Obama a Maoist or a Marxist is because the GOP doesn't just roll those attacks out 3 months before an election. They are saying the same stuff now that they will be saying in 2 years.

Posted by: square1 on February 8, 2011 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

What a steaming load off bullshit Steve Benen is peddling.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is an enemy of liberalism and the interests of 98% of Americans.

If you believe in a strong middle class, the Chamber is your enemy.

If you believe in labor standards, the Chamber is your enemy.

If you believe in a environmental protections, the Chamber is your enemy.

If you believe that climate change is real and a threat to life as we know it, the Chamber is your enemy.

And if you believe in a vibrant American economy, the Chamber is your enemy.

They are not your neighbor. They are not your partner. They are not your friend. They are not patriotic. And they don't give a fuck about you, your family, or your anyone else.

President Obama had a choice. He could work with real, patriotic American business leaders and marginalize the Chamber as tool of foreign and multinational corporations. Or he could do what he did, which was legitimize the Chamber and make it stronger. He made a bad choice. A stupid choice. And one for which the rest of us will pay dearly.
Posted by: square1 on February 8, 2011 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

square one, you know not what you post, but you are an extremely good shit stirrer. hmmmm wonder why....Yes, the chamber is out for itself, but not dealing at all with the chamber is the stupidest thing in the world.
Why do you think they have such power?AS a poster said, temper tatrums are not going to solve anything.You have to deal directly with the chamber and figure out how your can get them to deal. He laid out a challenge, which they will ignore, on to the next step...

Posted by: Michael on February 8, 2011 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

"Obama was there to present an argument, and defend its tenets -- government activism is necessary to boost the private sector, and businesses have to take their civic responsibilities seriously if they expect to thrive."

Obama was, I think, actually focused on making the point, which I don't think will be lost on the public, that business is sitting on fat profits and not hiring people with the money. That should be the headline for any elections coming up.

Posted by: jjm on February 8, 2011 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

Damn, Obama is good. What a smart speech ... doesn't mean the white male plutocrats will listen, or Fox will not distort, but he's laying down a marker.

Posted by: Melissa on February 8, 2011 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

Obama was, I think, actually focused on making the point, which I don't think will be lost on the public, that business is sitting on fat profits and not hiring people with the money.

Yes, and Obama is getting ready to tell the voters: Instead of spending money to hire Americans, corporations are spending money to get Republicans elected.

Not only are these powerful electoral arguments, they will split the Republican Party. He's fomenting Civil War among the GOP Big Biz Establishment, the Main Street Republicans, and the Tea Party Republicans. I hope this exerts a heavy toll on corporate campaign contributions.

Next, you'll probably see Obama cannily driving a wedge between the libertarians and the Christian conservatives. One of the enduring mysteries of American politics is the question of why Democrats have never tried to exploit this potential rift.

Divide and conquer. Force the Republicans to nominate someone who won't get both corporate contributions and evangelical boots on the ground. Make the Republicans fight each other, sit back and win another term. It will be fun to watch Obama take this particular page from the Republican playbook. I believe the SOTN and the speech to the Chamber mark the beginning of this divide-and-conquer strategy.

Posted by: Holdie on February 8, 2011 at 5:20 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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