WASHINGTON - Echoing John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama prodded business leaders Monday to look beyond company bottom lines and "ask yourselves what you can do for America" - even as he sought to smooth his uneasy relations with the nation's corporate executives.
Speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the president urged the business community to help accelerate the slow recovery by increasing hiring and unleashing some of the $2 trillion piling up on their balance sheets.
“I want to encourage you to get in the game,” Obama said.
He enumerated new efforts by his administration to improve the nation’s business infrastructure, spend more to support entrepreneurs and foster greater innovation. He vowed to address “a burdensome corporate tax code,” and go after “outdated regulations.”
But to a polite, subdued audience of about 200 he also offered a stout defense of health care and financial regulation overhauls – two administration initiatives that caused some of the most rancorous disputes with the Chamber last year.
“As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation,” Obama said.
President Kennedy, in his inaugural address 50 years ago, memorably declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Reacting, Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s chief lobbyist, said, “Companies first, unlike a government, have to sustain their operation and that requires being able to pay your employees, vendors, suppliers and bondholders.”
“Bottom line, the most patriotic thing a company can do is ensure it is in business and take steps to stay in business; otherwise everyone loses,” he said.
The U.S. Chamber mounted a vigorous lobbying campaign against the health care bill and the financial regulation overhaul, particularly a provision creating a consumer financial protection agency. It also spent at least $32 million in the 2010 elections, most of it in advertising campaigns against Democrats.
Still, the Chamber and the White House have mutual interests.
Obama needs the centrist cloak that the business community can offer, as he seeks to win independents for his re-election bid next year. The Chamber can benefit by softening the sharp edges it developed fighting the health care overhaul and tighter financial rules.
Obama is aiming to repair relations with corporate leaders even as he tries to persuade major businesses to spend their cash, expand hiring and promote economic growth.
Obama said his appearance at the Chamber was in the interest of “being more neighborly.” Indeed, the trade organization’s headquarters are so close to the White House that Obama was able to walk across Lafayette Square to deliver his remarks.