Saturday 24 February 2018

Obama back in business as he rebuilds bridges with America's CEOs

Mr Obama has kept an open door for CEOs of Fortune 100 companies. Photo: Bloomberg
Mr Obama has kept an open door for CEOs of Fortune 100 companies. Photo: Bloomberg

Roberta Rampton

US President Barack Obama, who made few friends in corporate board rooms early in his first term as he pressed for tighter regulations on banks and remarked on the "fat cats" who helped precipitate the financial crisis, heads into his final year in the White House having built - or rebuilt - alliances with chief executives of the nation's biggest companies.

Mr Obama and his top advisers have kept an open door for CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, keeping almost 1,000 appointments with them, a Reuters review of White House records shows.

Of the hundreds of appointments, Obama was present at about half, ranging from intimate Oval Office gatherings to lavish state dinners. Obama is the first US president to make White House visitor logs public.

"That number is the tip of the iceberg," said Valerie Jarrett, Obama's longest-serving senior adviser who runs his Office of Public Engagement.

The president and his aides also regularly meet with representatives from the rest of the Fortune 500, as well as small- and medium-sized businesses, she said.

Following tensions between the White House and business during the financial crisis, a turning point came after the debt ceiling impasse in 2011 and the subsequent "fiscal cliff" of tax hikes and spending cuts in 2012, Jarrett said. Business leaders were alarmed that Congress seemed ready to blow through fiscal deadlines in spite of the effect on stock markets and the US credit rating, and partnered with the White House to urge an end to the drama.

Since then, CEOs and the White House have become allies in advocating for immigration reform, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and reauthorisation for the Export-Import Bank.

"I do take a fair amount of grief from Republican colleagues who think that I've just, like, totally lost my mind," said Honeywell International's David Cote (63), the most frequent CEO visitor to Obama's White House, at more than 50 times.

Cote was part of a high-profile commission on the nation's debt in 2010 and serves on another advisory panel on technology and manufacturing. "You've got to be able to talk about this stuff and have both sides understand the needs of the other," he said.

Cote, a life-long Republican, doesn't always agree with Obama but enjoys talking with him, calling him "a very smart guy" who doesn't get enough credit for his work on the economy.

For Obama and his advisers, spending time with CEOs means gaining valuable insights, while gaining support for policies. For CEOs, White House encounters may produce tangible business benefits, not to mention providing an opportunity to hobnob with the most powerful man in the world.

When companies whose CEOs were among the top 30 White House visitors were contacted. many declined to comment. Some noted their chiefs were involved with advisory councils on jobs, trade and manufacturing, while remarking that CEOs often discuss the same issues with politicians in Congress.

The White House has tapped individual CEOs for help on policies where there is "alignment" of views, extracting a mountain of corporate pledges to bolster its policies to boost wages, foster science and maths in schools, increase diversity in the tech sector, and enhance college and training programmes.

Obama has bolstered his arguments for an international deal to curb climate change by securing promises from US companies like Intel, Johnson & Johnson and Apple to reduce waste and use more renewable energy. The logs show CEOs from large manufacturing and industrial companies have commanded more White House meetings than other sectors.

While Obama and corporate chiefs may have a meeting at the White House, there may not be a meeting of the minds. "We are not their advocates unless there is an alignment of interest," Jarrett said.

For instance, in October, Obama announced he would deny an application for the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline from Canada because it would undermine his position to lead climate talks. The project was supported by a wide range of US businesses.

That decision showed that White House meetings only go so far, said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs of large companies. "Sometimes it can be helpful. Sometimes - you saw the Keystone decision - it doesn't have much impact," he said. (Reuters)

Irish Independent

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