Friday, September 24, 2010

Is Obama anti-business?

The Economist has two articles (one, two) on whether Obama is "anti-business." According to both, business leaders are increasingly convinced that this is the case. The Economist writers can't figure out exactly why these attitudes exist, though...and since The Economist is probably the newsweekly that is read most by the business class, if they don't know, who does? The notion of Obama as anti-business, it turns out, is not really supported by the facts:
No matter that other Western politicians have publicly played with populism more dangerously, from France’s “laissez-faire is dead” president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to Britain’s “capitalism kills competition” business secretary, Vince Cable (see article); no matter that talk on the American right about Mr Obama being a socialist is rot; no matter that Wall Street’s woes are largely of its own making...

A president who truly wanted to wage war on business would have hung onto GM, not rushed to return it to the private sector. Card check has not been pushed. The finance bill, though bureaucratic, is not a Wall Street killer. With the exception of a China-bashing tyre tariff and a retreat on Mexican trucks, Mr Obama has eschewed protectionism. A lot of government cash has flowed to businesses, not least through the stimulus package. And above all his policies have helped pull the economy out of recession.
Yet does Mr Obama really have a case to answer? Certainly, some of the wilder allegations by some businesspeople should never have left the 19th hole. Mr Obama has consistently made it clear he favours a mixed capitalist economy. The big incursion of the state into finance took place on his Republican predecessor’s watch. And although he doubtless went further than a McCain administration would have done to help GM and Chrysler survive, he has stuck to his pledge to return them quickly to private ownership. He used this year’s state-of-the-union message to commit himself to helping corporate America double its exports, and has appointed a council to propose ideas for promoting more innovation...

Moreover, the main reason so many American bosses are down in the dumps is the sluggish economy. Mr Obama inherited the recession from his predecessor, and the economy has recovered, somewhat, since then. Besides, it was corporate America, in the shape of the Wall Street banks, that was largely to blame for the depth of the recession. It might have helped Mr Obama’s relationship with business if he had gone on less about “shameful bonuses” on Wall Street; but some shame was surely in order.

Even a Republican administration would have been obliged to reform financial regulation, and, though there is a lot to quibble with in the Dodd-Frank act, the administration responded to requests from Wall Street to kill some of the more alarming reform proposals from Democrats in Congress.
Furthermore, the writers of the two articles are divided on what Obama could possibly do to seem more business-friendly; one heartily endorses the idea of tapping a CEO to replace outgoing economic advisor Larry Summers, the other dismisses this as a superficial PR move. It's not surprising that the writers don't know what to recommend; if you don't know the disease, how can you know the cure? In the end, both are forced to the same conclusion: Barack Obama is perceived as being anti-business because he smells like a socialist:
[Obama] has some rhetorical form as an anti-business figure—unlike the previous Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, who could comfortably talk the talk of business. Mr Obama’s life story, as depicted in his autobiography and on the campaign, was one of a man once mired in the sinful private sector (at a company subsequently bought by The Economist), who redeemed himself only by becoming a community organiser; his wife had a similar trajectory. There are the endless digs at Wall Street and Big Pharma, not to mention the beating up of BP. He remains a supporter of “card check”, which would dispense with the need for secret ballots in establishing a trade union. His legislative agenda has centred on helping poorer individuals (the health-care bill, part of the stimulus bill) or reining in banks (the financial-reform bill). The only businesses he has rescued are the huge union-dominated General Motors and Chrysler.
[A]s a person with first-hand experience of Mr Obama’s decision-making points out, the “atmospherics really do matter”. The mere perception that the administration is anti-business is “starting to make the bosses of Fortune 500 companies more risk-averse,” says a billionaire who used to run one of America’s leading internet firms...

As for Mr Obama, when he meets businesspeople at fund-raisers and the like, he too often shakes hands and moves on, leaving them feeling he was more interested in a photo-op than a conversation. He caused offence and disbelief a while back by turning up for a meeting with a group of prominent chief executives and then reading to them from a teleprompter.
I think that this story is basically right. Businessmen fear Obama simply because he is not one of them. Obama comes from an academic and nonprofit background, and has in the past been sympathetic to socialist ideas. Even though his actions have been broadly pro-business, his identity is as a guy who comes from sectors whose attitudes are often inimical to industry. The fear among the business class - the "uncertainty" that one article claims is now starting to hurt the real economy - is simply the fear that, at any moment, Obama will revert to his roots and start madly swinging the wrecking ball of socialism through the American private sector.

I personally believe this fear is ungrounded. Obama is an obviously a guy who is inclined to listen to the "experts" on basically everything, and on business issues those "experts" are people who are far more sympathetic to the business class than Obama was in his youth. And I also believe that "uncertainty" over Obama's potential metamorphosis into a socialist Comrade Hyde is far down the list of things holding our economy back.

That said, however, I think it's counterproductive to allow this myth to persist at a time when other types of social strife (think: Tea Party vs. blacks and Hispanics) threatens to strain America to the breaking point. We do NOT need businessmen flooding the racist Tea Partiers with cash simply because they're scared that Obama will go all commie on 'em. And so Obama would do well to make friends with America's business class.

How can this be done? I think the second article has some good ideas about image management. Start dishing up pro-business rhetoric in speeches (and confine anti-business rhetoric to criticism of the finance industry). Have regular candid meetings with business leaders, and take their concerns to heart. Establish regular liaisons between the administration and the business community. Start trumpeting the pro-business nature of policies like export-promotion and research support that are already pro-business in substance.

Also, there are pro-business policies that are pretty obviously good for the country. Our corporate tax needs to be cut from 35% to 20% (with the revenue replaced by personal income tax or value-added tax). Cutting corporate tax is something that a series of Republican presidents has somehow managed to avoid even suggesting, so there's a big opportunity there; and, conveniently, it's something that will help poor people (low-wage workers and consumers) just as much as rich people. This could be a big winner for Obama.

But in the end, whatever happens to the Obama administration, this issue shows that America suffers from a sectoral divide that we should find a way to heal. For too long, many in academia and the nonprofit sector have viewed private business activity as inherently suspect and disreputable; profit is often denigrated and frowned upon. Listening to rhetoric I've heard from some (certainly not all!) academic and nonprofit sector workers, I'm not surprised that U.S. businessmen fear a president who comes from that walk of life. Until we recognize, as a nation, that
all of our sectors are important for national prosperity, class warfare of this type will hamstring sensible policy at the highest levels.


  1. I'm not sure if he's "anti-business" (although I'm less sure what that even means), but I've noticed that our president has almost a dual-personality when it comes to his public image that's been even more pronounced as of late.

    Did anyone catch his address to school kids on the first day? I thought he was pretty great, but you could have said he was being almost geeky and certainly not trying to impress anyway in his presentation - more trying to come off as an "average guy."

    On the other hand, his speeches to large groups of people can be truly inspiring, and make you think he's far and above us mere mortals.

    I wonder if he hasn't mastered the art of figuring out which persona to use at which time, and this hurts his credibility like when he reads from a teleprompter to a grouop of influential executives, etc.

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