By Jim Kuhnhenn/The Associated Press
WASHINGTON – Echoing John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama prodded business leaders Monday to “ask yourselves what you can do for America,” not just for company bottom lines, 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 economic recovery by increasing hiring and unleashing some of the $2 trillion piling up on their balance sheets.
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 He vowed to address “a burdensome corporate tax code,” and go after “unnecessary and outdated regulations.”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 signature administration initiatives that caused some of the most rancorous disputes with the Chamber last year.
“I want to be clear: Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America,” Obama said.
“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.”
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 and more people lose their jobs,” he said.
Obama needs the centrist cloak that the business community can offer, as he seeks to win independent voters 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. The Chamber can also act as Republican ballast against the influence of the conservative tea party movement.
Both the White House and the Chamber face Republican opposition from fiscal hawks within the GOP to increased spending on public works, from roads and bridges to wireless networks. The Chamber has called for such spending to be paid for with user fees, such as a higher gasoline tax. The White House has not embraced that approach, saying only that the administration wants to create an “infrastructure bank” to attract private capital.