Business Groups, Team Obama Play Well

Posted November 26, 2008 at 3:20pm

As President-elect Barack Obama puts together his administration’s economic team, business groups and private-sector lobbyists are vying to be heard.

Lobbyists say they are not only reaching out to Obama’s aides, but those aides are also seeking meetings and information from them, many of the same interests that Obama blasted on the campaign trail.

“They’re in a learning mode,” said Democratic lobbyist Sandi Stuart of Clark & Weinstock. “They are not resistant to talking to people and gaining a better understanding of the issues that are very critical to this country right now. A great deal of many very good ideas are generated in the private sector.”

Stuart said some of Obama’s recently named appointees have helped calm initial fears that the Democrat’s administration might shut out big business.

And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed Obama’s pick for Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, as well as other economic selections, including Larry Summers, Christina Romer and Melody Barnes. The Chamber issued a press statement saying the team will bring “a wealth of knowledge to Washington and an understanding that any sustainable economic recovery will involve the business sector.”

The chamber’s Bruce Josten said that his organization began reaching out to Obama and Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaigns more than six months ago and that now the president-elect and the business sector “have a mutually shared interest” in turning the economy around.

“Now that they have a transition team, they’re now reaching out to us,” Josten said, adding that he and chamber President Tom Donohue have received phone calls from transition officials. “We have already scheduled for Dec. 4 a meeting with Obama staff on health care, and then we are in the process of setting up a meeting on” the Federal Trade Commission.

The chamber’s vice president of international affairs, John Murphy, has met with Obama transition team members regarding trade. On the campaign trail, Obama said that he opposed several recent free-trade agreements and that he supported reopening the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But how the incoming administration will tackle such politically thorny issues remains unclear.

“What we don’t know is what they’ll do with the information we’re giving them,” Josten said. But, he pointed out, “There’s a huge difference between primary rhetoric, general election rhetoric and ultimately governing rhetoric.”

In one possible example, because of the economic crisis, Obama has signaled that he might hold off on a campaign pledge to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

Jade West, the top lobbyist for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, said business interests think Obama is naming competent people to deal with the economy. “I’m totally open-minded, and I hope they propose policies which help and don’t hurt the economy,” she said, adding that this type of collegiality is typical for the beginning of an administration. “Nobody’s going to draw a line in the sand at this early stage.”

But, she cautioned, if the Obama team uses the market meltdown as “a golden opportunity” to enact policies that business groups believe would hurt the economy, “then the relationship won’t last very long.”

Of course, the business community is not monolithic, and some are criticizing Obama’s willingness to listen to big business.

Lloyd Chapman, president of the American Small Business League, a group that has been fighting what it calls fraud in government-awarded small-business contracts, said he’s already disappointed in Obama.

“Last February, he came out with a statement about how important small businesses are and said it was time to end the diversion of small-business contracts to corporate giants,” Chapman said. “He completely dropped it.”

Chapman said he believes Obama and his team were swayed by better-heeled corporate lobbyists. Another area where Chapman says Obama has bowed to corporate lobbyists is on a proposed windfall profits tax on energy companies. “It’s pretty easy to figure out,” Chapman said.

Amy Brundage, an Obama transition spokeswoman, said Obama remains committed to small businesses.

“As he stated in the campaign, President-elect Obama is committed to strengthening our small businesses by ensuring they get the contracts they are entitled to, providing tax relief for small business start ups, and providing a health care tax credit to help small businesses provide affordable health insurance to their employees,” she said in an e-mail.