On a Monday morning in March, small business owner Mike Ruffer told a group at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C, how his eight Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchise restaurants in North Carolina were faring under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Five hours later, the backlash was so intense he had to wonder if that 15-minute speech might kill his company.
In fact, Mr. Ruffer is the most recent victim in a troubling pattern of seemingly orchestrated campaigns to silence small business owners who speak out about President Obama’s agenda. CEOs have told me they see disturbing parallels in the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Justice scandals, where the administration pursued political opponents and the press. And, quite frankly, these business owners are afraid.
Ruffer is in the same tough spot most job creators are today: stuck in the limbo of uncertainty about the future of Obamacare. He told the audience in Washington on that Monday morning that Mr. Obama’s health-care reform was so expensive he had to cancel expansion plans and may raise burger prices.
Like many in his business, Ruffer set up his restaurants as separate corporations a decade ago. As Obamacare emerged, he was not concerned because none of his companies had enough employees to suffer the mandate that all employers of a certain size provide health insurance to their employees.
When more details were revealed, he found out his multiple corporations did not protect him at all. Today Ruffer believes the costs of health-care reform will eat the entire profits of one of his restaurants. Just like his peers, he is uncertain about imminent costs and requirements under Obamacare and cannot plan accordingly.
All businesses are affected by the health-care law’s mandates, but small businesses – especially restaurants – have less maneuverability to pay for them. As Ruffer told his audience, passing the cost to customers risks pricing his products beyond perceived value. As a result, he would have to cut his expenses: employees, investments in new locations, and more.
When Ruffer’s comments hit the Internet, calls and emails from Obamacare supporters rained into executives at Five Guys headquarters – Ruffer’s bosses. Social media started to turn against the popular brand, and progressive bloggers filed the first wave of negative stories.
Within hours, corporate headquarters was distancing themselves from their North Carolina business partner, stating that his views did not reflect the corporate position. Ruffer stopped answering his telephone; emails went unanswered. The business he had built after retiring was suddenly in danger. He probably wondered why he opened his big mouth – and he’s not alone.
In late 2012, executives from Darden Restaurants – owner of The Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, and Red Lobster restaurants – were planning for future compliance with the new health-care law and tested the impact of putting more workers on part-time schedules. No permanent changes ever took place, but after media reports about the testing and commentary about the cost of Obamacare by Darden’s CEO, the company was rapidly rebuked via telephone, email, and social media.
At the same time, John Metz’s Palm Beach-based RREMC Restaurants, owner of 30 Denny’s franchises, announced he might put an Obamacare cost line on diners’ checks. Then came the deluge of emails and telephone calls and the social media backlash. Again, the franchise headquarters and Denny’s brand were targeted, not just the franchisee. Within a day, Denny’s corporate offices expressed “disappointment” with Mr. Metz’s comments and Metz issued a public apology.
The list goes on: Applebees, Papa John’s, even golfer Phil Mickelson. When a business owner speaks up about the costs of Obamcare, he is quickly singled out for a public thrashing. Each attack has similar fingerprints and the marks of a professional operation: telephone banks and email campaigns that erupt moments after a business leader speaks out, all focused on pressuring the exact people who can effectively slap the offender down.
And the president's supporters certainly are organized. While Ruffer was buried in backlash, Organizing for Action was holding a two-day summit two blocks from the White House. The nonprofit group formed from Obama’s reelection campaign was charting its future. According to press reports, attendees were talking about applying campaign tactics to support the president’s domestic agenda.
Of course, those on the left aren’t the only ones to organize campaigns to target those who go against their platform. But when Obamacare supporters target small business owners – the backbone of US job creation – I have to wonder if they’ve crossed a line.
Is this new era of the permanent campaigning why Mike Ruffer believes his business is at risk? “Of course this is orchestrated, and clearly by the president’s supporters,” Democrat pollster Pat Caddell told me. “This passes the duck test: It looks, swims, and quacks like a duck. Every political operative in the country knows this is a duck.”
Mike Leven, president of Sands Casino, summed it up recently: “For the first time in my long career, I feel like a target.” He is not alone. A recent Job Creators Alliance poll showed 70 percent of small business owners feel Washington has become more hostile to them in recent years. Their peers at Five Guys, Denny’s, Applebee’s, Red Lobster, and more would certainly agree.
Today, job creators across the country are staring into the depths of Obamacare uncertainty. New problems keep coming, with little or no warning. Facing the same questions as Ruffer, they cannot plan. But when seemingly organized forces of Obama supporters attack small business leaders, disrupt commerce, and risk jobs to make a political point, job creators are no longer just uncertain. They are afraid – afraid for their businesses and afraid to speak out
Bernie Marcus is co-founder and former CEO of Home Depot and co-founder of the national Job Creators Alliance.