Head of US Chamber of Commerce: 'cautiously optimistic' about recovery

Signs of warming relations between the White House and business community continued Tuesday as Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, applauded recent moves.

By , Staff writer

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    US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue listens to a question during his annual 'State of American Business' address, Tuesday, Jan. 11, at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
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The weather in Washington is frigid, but a thaw in relations between the Obama White House and the business community kept going Tuesday.

Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, spoke approvingly during a speech and press conference in Washington about two new top Obama staff appointments, as well as what he called “a new tone coming from the White House.”

The chamber is America’s largest business group and a lobbying powerhouse on Capitol Hill.

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Mr. Donohue first hailed the appointment of Chicago banking executive William Daley as President Obama’s new chief of staff last week, when he called Mr. Daley “a man of stature and extraordinary experience.”

Donohue’s new comments about the White House came during a speech and press conference about the state of US business, which he said "is improving." The chamber is predicting economic growth of 3.2 percent in 2011 and is “cautiously optimistic that the recovery will continue and pick up steam," he said. That would still leave unemployment in the 8.5 to 9 percent range by year’s end, Donohue cautioned.

“We still face a number of risks that could send us in the wrong direction, and our recovery is fragile and uneven,” Donohue said. "When it comes to jobs, we have a steep hill to climb.”

Tense relations between the Obama White House and the business community have “never been personal with us,” Donohue said. “It has always been arguments about what we thought about labor or environmental law or health-care law.”

He added, "There may have been some people over there that got sort of excited about trying to represent their interests." The "over there" comment refers to the fact the chamber's imposing headquarters sit just across Lafayette Park from the White House.

At one point earlier in his administration, Mr. Obama told "60 Minutes" that he "did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street.” And at a meeting with business executives last year, the president railed against them for saying one thing in White House meetings while their lobbyists did another “up on Capitol Hill.”

Relations with the business community began improving after the midterm elections, in which Democrats lost control of the House. Shortly thereafter, Obama agreed to a compromise with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts, and he then reshaped his White House team. Both moves appealed to business groups.

In addition to praising Daley on Tuesday as "a real pro,” Donohue also spoke approvingly of Gene Sperling, Obama’s recent choice to head the National Economic Council. “Sperling has done this before and knows the people,” Donohue said.

There are still major areas of disagreement between the business community and the White House. Donohue singled out the regulations springing from health-care reform and financial regulation – legislation that the Obama administration considers among its biggest domestic accomplishments. Donohue called them a “regulatory tsunami” that is “the single biggest challenge to jobs, our global competitiveness, and the future of American enterprise.”

The chamber will fight for repeal of the health-care legislation and for changes in the financial-regulation legislation, Donohue said. The chamber is also seeking to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions.

“No one should expect the chamber to march in lock step with anyone else’s agenda but our own,” Donohue said.

Another big step in business-White House relations will come on Feb. 7, when Obama is slated to give a speech at the chamber's headquarters.

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