President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, on Feb. 7, 2011. Obama pledged to eliminate unneeded regulations and simplify the tax code, but said companies have responsibilities to help the economy recover. (Photo: Drew Angerer / The New York Times)
Washington - President Barack Obama challenged big business Monday to tap into its huge reserves of cash and start hiring.
"Now is the time to invest in America," Obama said during a peacemaking visit to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, across Lafayette Park from the White House.
"Today, American companies have nearly $2 trillion sitting on their balance sheets. I know that many of you have told me that you are 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.
"But many of your own economists and salespeople are now forecasting a healthy increase in demand. So I want to encourage you to get in the game."
Obama's visit was part of a growing White House effort to reach out to business since he and the Democrats suffered historic election losses last November. Business has opposed much of his agenda, and the Chamber spent tens of millions to defeat Democrats last year.
As a symbolic gesture, Obama walked across the park to the Chamber's imposing headquarters, and joked about his relationship with business.
"I’m here in the interest of being more neighborly," he said. "Maybe we would have gotten off on a better foot if I had brought over a fruitcake when we first moved in."
Obama said his administration is working to help business by promoting the sale of U.S. goods and services overseas, tax breaks for investment, a proposed overhaul of corporate income taxes, and with a planned reorganization of the government to make it more efficient, starting with consolidation of 12 offices that deal with exports.
He also pitched his proposals to spend more on education and infrastructure as key to helping business by providing better-trained workers and a more reliable and less costly way of shipping goods and information.
But he also launched a full-throated defense of government regulation, including his regulation of Wall Street and his new healthcare law. He suggested that warnings that government regulation is automatically bad for business are wrong, and cited past warnings that proved false, such as that seat belts would hurt car sales.
For the most part, the Chamber audience of business leaders and trade association officials gave Obama a frosty reception. They applauded the introduction of his new chief of staff, William Daley, a former bank official, and little else.
Some liberals and labor unions criticized Obama's outreach to big business.
"Two weeks ago the president promised that he would work to rebuild people’s faith in government _ meeting with the biggest lobbyists in the country is hardly a step in the right direction,” said Erica Payne, founder of the Agenda Project, a liberal group.
“The Chamber claims to speak for American business, but half of the Chamber’s budget is paid for by 45 big corporations. The president is well aware that the Chamber is actually just a high-priced lobbyist for a small number of corporations. I hardly think the president will restore our faith in government by fawning over the banks at the center of the financial crisis, oil companies like BP who destroyed the Gulf and insurance companies who secretly funneled $10 million through the Chamber to fight insurance reform,” Payne said in a statement.