Washington - Is President Obama a friend of business or a critic of business? The answer: Yes.
A close reading of Obama's speech this week to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce allows you to conclude pretty much whatever you are inclined to conclude about his actual view. And that tells you a great deal about the current phase of his presidency.
Obama now has three overlapping objectives. He is trying to recapture the magic of 2008 when he was more a preacher of hope and inspiration than the representative of a particular ideology. He wants to foil Republican efforts to center the national debate on a choice between big and small government. And he is trying to woo back independent voters, but in a way that solidifies rather than alienates his left-of-center base.
Put another way, he wants to be an effective Democrat to Democrats and a post-partisan to post-partisans. He'll do this by being a president leading the nation rather than a prime minister herding his party's legislation through a cranky, balky Congress.
And why not? Republican control of the House ended a two-year parliamentary phase of unified party government. Now, Obama either needs Republicans to pass legislation or he needs to pick the right fights with them. His meeting with House Republican leaders on Wednesday was the opening act of what will be an intricate and engrossing drama.
His aides have another way of seeing all this: Obama feels like himself again, the guy who managed to talk to everyone except the most entrenched right-wingers who thought he was a radical "Muslim" during the 2008 campaign, and still do.
One other thing: Obama seems genuinely happy in his work.
Judging by reactions to Obama's Chamber speech on Monday, there is a Rorschach quality to his rhetoric these days. People are hearing either what they want to hear or what they were inclined to hear before he even opened his mouth.
The speech made such a response easy. It included many words of praise for business, for capitalism, a pledge "to make America the best place on earth to do business" and a promise to "remove ... outdated and unnecessary regulations."
But it was also full of challenges, and, one might even say, implicit criticisms.
Obama spoke of the country's "widening chasm of wealth and opportunity," warned that "the perils of too much regulation are also matched by the dangers of too little," and told the business crowd that if government helps business, the economic benefits "can't just translate into greater profits and bonuses for those at the top." They should be "shared by American workers, who need to know that expanding trade and opening markets will lift their standards of living as well as your bottom line."
And there was more than a whiff of economic nationalism -- or, as Obama would prefer, patriotism: "Ask yourselves what you can do to hire more American workers, what you can do to support the American economy and invest in this nation." He didn't say "or else," which those to his left might have liked. But he did set himself up for a tougher economic argument down the road.
It's not likely he converted the Chamber of Commerce crowd, which interrupted the body of the speech only twice for applause. And some asked why he didn't speak before a friendlier business group, rather than gracing the chamber, which spent millions to deliver the "shellacking" the president suffered in November. Rewarding your enemies makes your friends wonder about the benefits of loyalty.
Yet the president's lieutenants are pleased with the way things are going. They're satisfied that they are making a consistent case for a mixture of government action and fiscal prudence to promote economic growth. They're relieved that a White House known for meandering from theme to theme in its first two years is now showing great discipline in sticking with its "win the future" motto. And they're convinced that the Obama of 2011, like the Obama of 2008, is making a broadly progressive argument that is nonetheless hard to pigeonhole according to the ideological conventions of the past. As they see it, he is neither capitulating nor triangulating, but simply trying to be Obama.
You might say that the president who helped save the American auto industry has ditched Pontiac-style politics for the fresher look of the Chevy Volt. The new product has yet to be tested by market turbulence, but its launch will be the stuff of business school case studies.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
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