Obama to US companies: Time to hire and invest is now

Obama's speech Monday to US Chamber of Commerce outlined plans to encourage innovation and business investment. But he also urged US companies to get off sidelines and 'invest in America.'

Jim Young/Reuters
President Obama addresses the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington on Feb. 7.

President Obama called on American business Monday to get off the sidelines and invest in the nation’s economy and its workers.

In a highly anticipated speech to the US Chamber of Commerce, which had worked hard in the last election to defeat Democrats, Mr. Obama laid out ways in which his administration aims to encourage innovation and business investment. Then, in a patriotic appeal, he asserted that “winning the future” is not just about what the government can do to help business succeed, it’s about business helping the nation succeed.

“So if I’ve got one message, my message is: Now is the time to invest in America,” Obama told the business lobby.

The president noted that American companies have nearly $2 trillion in reserve, and encouraged them to “get in the game.”

“I know that many of you have told me that you're waiting for demand to rise before you get off the sidelines and expand, and that with millions of Americans out of work, demand's risen more slowly than any of us would like,” Obama said.

But, he noted, many economists are forecasting a “healthy increase” in demand. “And as all of you know,” Obama said, “it’s investments made now that will pay off as the economy rebounds. And as you hire, you know that more Americans working will mean more sales for your companies.”

The president then pushed hard on the idea that opportunity brings responsibility – that in exchange for administration efforts to reform the tax code and boost exports, the benefits cannot just translate into greater profits and bonuses.

“They have to 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,” Obama said.

“We can't go back to the kind of economy – and culture – that we saw in the years leading up to the recession, where growth and gains in productivity just didn't translate into rising incomes and opportunity for the middle class.”

Obama’s speech, his first to the US Chamber of Commerce, represented part of a larger effort to retool his relationship with the business community, which has been behaving cautiously in the face of economic uncertainty. Earlier this year, Obama brought in William Daley, a former Clinton-era Commerce secretary with long business experience, as his chief of staff and made Gene Sperling his top economic adviser, an appointment welcomed by Chamber President Tom Donohue. Obama has also tapped Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, to lead a council of business leaders that will provide input on government policy.

Obama’s sharp turn away from populist rhetoric to a more business-friendly approach is seen as part of his turn toward the political center, following the drubbing Democrats endured in the November midterms. But Republican leaders on Capitol Hill were less than impressed with Obama’s speech.

If Obama is committed to creating jobs, he should end the “stimulus” spending binge and work with Republicans to undo “job-crushing” regulations, House Speaker John Boehner said.

“President Obama has retooled his rhetoric, but not his job-destroying policies, which are eroding confidence, fostering uncertainty, and crowding out private investment,” Speaker Boehner said in a statement.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell zeroed in on the free trade issue, praising Obama’s support of the South Korean free trade agreement but criticizing the lack of action on deals with Colombia and Panama.

“It won’t be enough for Republicans and it shouldn’t be enough for the business community to allow the administration’s trade agenda to start and end with South Korea,” Senator McConnell said. “We should be passing all pending trade agreements and inking new ones on a bipartisan basis – even when it requires the president bringing his own party along.”

Progressive activists on trade were equally unhappy.

“It's unclear what is more mortifying: President Barack Obama choosing the club of America's notorious job-offshorers to talk about the importance of creating American jobs, or his rallying of his fiercest political opponents to help him overcome the majority of Americans who oppose more-of-the-same job-killing trade agreements and pass a NAFTA-style deal with Korea that the government's own analysis shows will increase our trade deficit,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, in a statement.

The divide between labor and business isn’t necessarily as sharp as some reactions indicated. After Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 25, the nation’s top labor leader, Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, and the Chamber’s Mr. Donohue issued a joint statement praising Obama’s speech.

“America’s working families and business community stand united in applauding President Obama’s call to create jobs and grow our economy through investment in our nation’s infrastructure,” the leaders said.

Obama began his speech Monday by joking about how his relationship with the Chamber – located just a quick walk away on the other side of Lafayette Park, across from the White House – got off to a bad start two years ago.

“I’m here in the interest of being more neighborly,” the president said. “Maybe we would have gotten off on a better foot if I had brought over a fruitcake when we first moved in.”

Atmospherics aside, the real bottom line is how the economy – and the jobless rate – does in the months ahead. If it continues to recover, and more Americans return to work, those unhappy with Obama’s approach will have less to complain about.

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