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How Obama Can Heal His Rift With Business

By Jonathan Alter
November 08, 2012 6:30 PM EST
Illustration by Nick Lu
Illustration by Nick Lu

U.S. presidents’ second terms often turn out to be failures in domestic policy, largely because lame ducks are almost by definition political figures of the past. Yet President Barack Obama’s winning coalition is aligned with the future of the country, giving him a fresh chance to lead.

To do so, he must repair his badly damaged relationship with the business community, which overwhelmingly supported Mitt Romney. It’s doable. From avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff, to an overhaul of immigration laws, to tax reform, there’s much more common ground than the combatants could acknowledge during the campaign.

The first task is for both the White House and the business world (Wall Street and Main Street) to acknowledge where it was wrong about the other side.

From the start, Obama failed to include enough business executives in his administration. His friend and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett once ran a Chicago real-estate company, but she was seen by business as more of a gatekeeper and liaison in the White House than a true friend. Otherwise, there was no one around the president who had met a payroll, unless you include aides who had run political consulting firms.

The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness did some good if little-noticed work, but it was never fully integrated into the policy-making apparatus.

Burdensome Regulations

During his tenure as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard University law professor and now a fellow Bloomberg View columnist, eliminated more burdensome regulations than he was given credit for. Still, important business activity -- from obtaining a government contract to getting a mortgage -- remains mired in red tape.

For its part, business must stop acting whiny and petulant about the president. I’m astonished that so many wealthy people were wounded because Obama generically referred to “fat cats” three years ago on “60 Minutes.” They need to grow up and recognize that he needed to position himself as the champion of the middle class to get re-elected.

Top executives also need to cut out the “socialist” talk and admit that the president is anything but a radical. (Obama’s health-care law, for instance, is pretty much the Bob Dole-Mitt Romney plan).

And just because the rest of the world reveres business leaders and pretends to listen to their wisdom, Obama doesn’t have to follow suit. He’s the president.

If chief executive officers can put aside their regrets over the outcome of the election, they can be important brokers between the administration and Republicans in Congress.

After Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles issued the recommendations of their bipartisan deficit-reduction panel in 2010, almost 100 CEOs signed a letter of support for their plan. This meant chief executives favored a mix of budget cuts and tax increases that was in many respects to the left of what Obama offered House Speaker John Boehner in the scuttled grand-bargain talks of mid-2011. That Obama never fully embraced Simpson-Bowles for political reasons is now irrelevant. The executives who expressed their support for Bowles-Simpson two years ago need to come to Washington and stand behind the president, who has a mandate for his “balanced” approach.

In this mission, they can be joined by their erstwhile candidate. Obama said in his victory speech that he looked forward to sitting down with Romney (Franklin D. Roosevelt did something similar with his 1940 opponent, Wendell Willkie). Now that he no longer has to worry about the right wing of his party, Romney could help sell a deal to the business community.

Concessions Needed

The same goes for former President Bill Clinton, who can persuade Democratic interest groups that they have to make concessions. All hands will be needed on deck to keep the ship from going over the falls.

Comprehensive immigration reform is the next big item for business leaders. The tired Tea Party argument -- that we must secure our borders first -- is moot. The borders are quiet, with fewer illegal crossings than in decades. Because Republican House members are still worried about primary challenges from the right in 2014, they will need the full force of the business community in their districts to be mobilized around reform. Beyond their business interests, Republicans know that if they don’t increase their share of the Hispanic vote (Romney received about 27 percent), they are doomed as a party.

Finally, tax reform. Obama will use his re-election and the leverage of the Jan. 1 expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts to insist that the marginal tax rates for the wealthy be allowed to revert to the higher levels that prevailed during the Clinton administration.

That doesn’t mean tax reform is dead. During the first debate, Romney offered an intriguing suggestion: Instead of getting bogged down in an impossible argument over ending cherished deductions, all such benefits could be capped at a certain percentage of a taxpayer’s income. Democrats are receptive to the idea and to radical tax simplification that would be a welcome relief even without huge reductions in rates.

I’m not being Rodney King, asking “Can we all get along?” Noisy partisanship is the norm in Washington. But if the White House can listen more, if business can complain less, and if the Republicans can develop a clear-eyed vision of the future of the party, 2013 could be a lot more productive than expected.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View. Subscribe to receive a daily e-mail highlighting new View editorials, columns and op-ed articles.

Today’s highlights: the editors on the political imperative of immigration reform and on why China’s rulers can’t go on controlling information; Margaret Carlson on why another “Year of the Woman” is nothing to celebrate; Stephen L. Carter on why we shouldn’t worry about low voter turnout; William Pesek on a possible thaw between the two Koreas; Jonathan Weil on one honest man on Wall Street; Adam Minter on the view from Beijing during the party congress; Sean West on why the fiscal cliff game has changed.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Alter at alterjonathan@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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