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Obama Looking to Main Street

The White House is aggressively courting the small-business community, believing that some on GOP-friendly Main Street can be enlisted in the fight for health care reform and that assistance to mom-and-pop shops is vital to chipping away at the unemployment rate.

With the economy beginning to improve, Republicans have made rising unemployment their banner economic issue, scolding the White House at every turn for weekly increases in joblessness and the administration’s earlier underestimation of the current rate — which is near 10 percent. Though employment is “lagging— behind the improving economy at a rate consistent with other recoveries, White House officials are increasingly worried about job creation and have begun to focus on helping small business mitigate the problem.

“Over the past decade and a half, America’s small businesses have created 65 percent of all new jobs in the country,— Obama said at a small-business event last Wednesday in Landover, Md. “These companies are the engine of job growth in America,— he said. “And that’s why they have to be at the forefront of our recovery.—

The effort includes a mixed White House strategy of reaching out to the Washington small-business lobby and meeting directly with small-business owners in order to move its message out.

Obama and his staff in recent days have waged a war of words against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which in addition to corporate giants represents thousands of small businesses — over the chamber’s opposition to major aspects of the administration’s agenda. But White House officials were on the phone to the chamber and the GOP-leaning National Federation of Independent Business on Friday asking them to provide a group of small-business owners for Obama to talk with at the White House on Thursday.

“There are clear disagreements on some issues, but there are a lot of areas where we can work together,— White House Deputy Press Secretary Jen Psaki said of the small-business lobby. “Helping small business is a way we can help local communities.—

Sources said that Obama wants to talk about health care and the economy during Thursday’s session. The White House believes the promise of better rates and fewer barriers to insurance for small businesses seeking to cover their employees can bring companies onto the health care reform bandwagon.

“By creating a health insurance exchange, reform will give small businesses and their employees more affordable options,— White House Online Programs Director Jesse Lee wrote in a White House blog post last week. “Small firms that choose to offer health insurance to their employees will be eligible for tax credits.—

But the small-business lobby is wary. “We’re having some concerns— with legislation being written on Capitol Hill, an NFIB official said. “There are things that scare a lot of small-business owners,— she said, pointing to the inclusion of a public insurance option and mandates for coverage by businesses.

White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett — who has suggested the White House will seek to circumvent the chamber — and Small Business Administration chief Karen Mills will huddle at the White House today with a separate group of small-business owners.

At last Wednesday’s event, Obama announced several steps designed to grease the wheels of credit for small business with an eye toward job creation. The president said he is taking steps to make it easier and more attractive for small banks and community development financial institutions to lend to small business and that he wants Congress to raise the cap on SBA loan amounts.

And he said he had asked Mills and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner “to convene a conference in the coming weeks that will bring together regulators, Congressional leaders, lenders and small businesses to determine what additional steps we can take to get credit flowing to small businesses that want to expand and create more jobs.—

Obama staged a rare detour from the topic of health care in his weekly radio address Saturday to talk small-business issues instead, strongly urging banks to get with his program of lending more to small businesses.

“These are the very taxpayers who stood by America’s banks in a crisis — and now it’s time for our banks to stand by credit-worthy small businesses, and make the loans they need to open their doors, grow their operations and create new jobs,— Obama said. “It’s time for those banks to fulfill their responsibility to help ensure a wider recovery, a more secure system and more broadly shared prosperity. And we’re going to take every appropriate step to encourage them to meet those responsibilities.—

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