America's business ingrates
The Washington Post, July 14, 2010
They could have at least said "thank you" first.
I'm talking about America's CEOs. As the new campaign ginned up by the Business Roundtable and the Wall Street Journal's
editorial page would have you believe, President Obama is anti-business. His grasping government has cast a pall of uncertainty that's suffocating growth. Business leaders, who stood by patiently to give the man a chance, can no longer hold their tongues. As patriots, it's their duty to speak out.
Well. I'm not saying Obama has been perfect on the economy. Far from it.
But you'd think that if business had finally found its voice, its first words would include paeans of gratitude for the bold government action that kept us from going off a cliff.
The Dow closed at 7,949 the day Obama was sworn in. This week it's above 10,300. The economy shed 779,000 jobs in January 2009. Eighteen months later we're fretting because the private sector "only" added 83,000 jobs in June. Back then, the banking system was on the verge of collapse. Now banks are set to report solid earnings.
Are we fully out of the woods? No. Does Obama deserve all the credit for the progress we've made? No again. But he deserves his share. And business leaders can't deny that compared to where we were, today's problems are great problems to have.
Carping CEOs may mean well. But too many confuse Obama's necessary "crisis management" with "creeping socialism."
Take autos. Obama didn't run for office to take over the automakers. He took equity stakes, and forced GM and Chrysler into quickie reorganizations, to avoid the unpredictable consequences of liquidation amidst the meltdown he inherited. In a matter of months, his auto team spurred restructuring decisions that should have been made by Detroit's flabby CEOs years (if not decades) earlier. And you can bet the feds will unload their equity at the first prudent moment.
Or take the banks. Obama stiffed those on the left who said Swedish-style nationalization was the only way. He assented to the quiet recapitalization of the system through a near-zero interest rate regime that gives millions of savers the shaft, but which permits banks to heal their balance sheets through low-cost funds on which they earn a healthy spread. Paul Volcker says Obama went too easy on banks in the financial reform that's poised to pass. And when Obama had bank CEOs to the White House, did he call in the cameras and say, "By the way, gentlemen, what will you earn this year," forcing them to publicly defend their multi-million-dollar packages while 14 million Americans who helped bail them out went jobless? That might have earned him the sobriquet "anti-business." Instead, Obama called Wall Street's mavens "savvy businessmen."
Health care? Sorry, corporate America, but enacting Romneycare for the nation can't be a socialist takeover. Did Obama solve the problem of health costs? No. As America's other major purchaser of health care, have you solved the problem of health costs? No. Call it even.
The Business Roundtable released a catalogue of Obama's sins that allegedly put us on the road to ruin. What does the executive summary to this anti-business "avalanche" (their phrase) highlight?
Proposed changes in taxation on overseas earnings for multinationals. A provision in the financial reform bill that lets shareholders directly nominate candidates for the board of directors. (The roundtable says this would "reduce efficiency, stifle competition and deter capital formation." Huh? Sounds like it would break up the old boys' club.) Card checksure, but Obama let that fall by the wayside on day one. New trade dealsvital, yes, but opening up tiny Colombia and Panama won't make a dent in the jobs gap.
There's more, but you get the drift. Oh, and big debts and deficits must be addressed. But no specificsgood luck with that, Mr. President.
I'm not saying business doesn't have legitimate concerns. I'm with them on tax cuts to boost jobs. As a carbon tax man myself, I can see how the prospect of cap-and-trade seems intrusive and uncertain. And Obama hurt his own cause by failing to name a prominent ex-CEO to his senior team, to play the role that the now-tarnished Bob Rubin played so effectively for Bill Clinton in his early years.
Still, if you're Obama, fielding the slings and arrows from the corner office, you've got to feel a little like Winston Churchill, who was thrown out by voters immediately after he saved western civilization. Ingrates, he surely muttered to himself.