President Barack Obama insisted that he is “absolutely not” vilifying business during a Monday town hall on the economy.
Obama faced some of his most pointed questions yet on his relationship to Wall Street and big business during the CNBC event before 200 college students, small-business owners and retirees in Washington. A hedge fund manager in the audience asked the president when he is “going to stop whacking at the Wall Street piñata,” and CNBC host John Harwood cited a recent issue of Forbes magazine that criticized Obama for having an “anti-colonial attitude” toward business.
The president responded that he has been “amused” by “this sense of somehow me beating up on Wall Street. I think most folks on Main Street feel like they got beat up on.”
He maintained that his “entire focus right now” is making sure the private sector is thriving. He listed steps he has taken that fall into “what historically have been considered pro-business agendas”: no corporate tax rate increases, eight tax cuts for small businesses, and incentives for investing in plant and equipment.
“If you look at what we’ve done over the last two years, it’s very hard to find evidence of anything that we’ve done that is designed to squash business as opposed to promote business,” Obama said. On the other hand, he said, people on Wall Street who bring home hundreds of millions of dollars a year should not be complaining about their tax rates being too high.
“If you’re making $1 billion a year after a very bad financial crisis where 8 million people lost their jobs and small businesses can’t get loans, then I think that you shouldn’t be feeling put upon,” he said.
The president also took some tough questions on the direction of the economy. One questioner told Obama she is “exhausted of defending you.” In light of the constant toll the economy is taking on her family, she asked, “Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly: Is this my new reality?” Another audience member, a 30-year-old recent law school graduate without a job and unable to pay bills, asked, “Is the American Dream dead for me?”
Obama acknowledged that “times are tough for everybody right now, so I understand your frustration.” He said his message to the public is not that “everything’s where it needs to be,” but that the country is moving in the right direction because of his policies on health care, education and financial reform, among others.
“I stay up every night and I wake up every morning thinking about the people who sent me into this job. And the single most important task I have is to make sure that the dreams of you and your families are realized,” the president said.