Obama Challenges Chamber of Commerce to Support His Agenda
If you've got the time, President Obama's speech earlier today to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is worth reading in its entirety. After first watching it live, I went back to reread it it and from my perspective, the best short summary of it is what I wrote in the headline: President Obama went to the Chamber and challenged its membership to support his agenda.
Obama began his speech with an explicit acknowledgment that he wasn't going to get their support on every item of his agenda, but he nonetheless used the speech as an opportunity to articulate where he is coming from and why he believes his agenda is the right agenda to move America forward and grow the economy.
At the heart of the challenge facing America, Obama said, is the growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and the middle class.
They [the American public] see a widening chasm of wealth and opportunity in this country, and they wonder if the American Dream is slipping away.
Obama didn't shy away from the government's responsibility to address that challenge, but he called on corporate America to do its part as well.
As a government, we will help lay the foundation for you to grow and innovate and succeed. ... But as we work with you to make America a better place to do business, I’m hoping that all of you are thinking what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire more American workers, what you can do to support the American economy and invest in this nation. That’s what I want to talk about today –- the responsibilities we all have -- the mutual responsibilities we have -- to secure the future that we all share.
Obama made the case for public investment in technology, infrastructure, and education, pointing out that on the need for a 21st century infrastructure, there was actually common ground between the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka and the Chamber of Commerce's Tom Donohue. (Greg Sargent notes the AFL-CIO praised the speech.)
Obama also made the case for fiscal restraint, highlighting his proposal to freeze discretionary domestic spending for five years. In my opinion, he is wrong on the policy here, but this has been his position for quite some time. Remember, he first proposed the freeze in January 2010; this year, he proposed extending it for two years.
Obama also pointed to entitlements as being the biggest long-term fiscal challenge facing government. He's right about this, and as he pointed out later in his speech, health care reform was actually a major step towards addressing the biggest component of the entitlement challenge: health care spending. He didn't mention Social Security, but the fact is that at some point we need to raise the payroll tax to keep the program healthy, and the sooner we do that, the lower the tax increase will have to be. Now, I wish he'd pointed that out more explicitly rather than vaguely calling for some sort of action, but eventually we need to raise the payroll tax cap.
Obama also pointed out that he has been pushing for trade deals and other agreements to increase U.S. exports and he embraced corporate tax reform (which would end things like subsidies for oil companies).
Obama highlighted his administration's effort to review regulations to see if there are any outdated or unnecessary rules, but he also made the case for the basic idea of regulating economic activity to protect citizens -- and strengthen the economy.
Even as we eliminate burdensome regulations, America’s businesses have a responsibility as well to recognize that there are some basic safeguards, some basic standards that are necessary to protect the American people from harm or exploitation. Not every regulation is bad. Not every regulation is burdensome on business. A lot of the regulations that are out there are things that all of us welcome in our lives.
Few of us would want to live in a society without rules that keep our air and water clean; that give consumers the confidence to do everything from investing in financial markets to buying groceries. And the fact is, when standards like these have been proposed in the past, opponents have often warned that they would be an assault on business and free enterprise. We can look at the history in this country. Early drug companies argued the bill creating the FDA would “practically destroy the sale of … remedies in the United States.” That didn’t happen. Auto executives predicted that having to install seatbelts would bring the downfall of their industry. It didn’t happen. The President of the American Bar Association denounced child labor laws as “a communistic effort to nationalize children.” That’s a quote.
None of these things came to pass.
To illustrate his point, he discussed how energy efficiency regulations have improved refrigerators, benefiting the economy and the environment. And he also used this part of his speech to make the case for health care reform:
We simply could not continue to accept a status quo that’s made our entire economy less competitive, as we’ve paid more per person for health care than any other nation on Earth. Nobody is even close. And we couldn’t accept a broken system where insurance companies could drop people because they got sick, or families went into bankruptcy because of medical bills.
Notice he's not just saying that these regulations serve an economic purpose, though he clearly makes that case. He also says there is a moral argument from them as well. Effective regulation isn't just right, it's good.
Obama closed his speech by returning to the central challenge confronting America: that even as people at the very top are doing well, everybody else is getting left behind. That reality threatens the social fabric of our nation, he said. It's not just that business has an obligation to do good things for American workers -- it's that our system depends on everybody having a stake in our nation's success.
If we’re fighting to reform the tax code and increase exports to help you compete, the benefits can’t just translate into greater profits and bonuses for those at the top. They have to be shared by American workers, who need to know that expanding trade and opening markets will lift their standards of living as well as your bottom line.
We can’t go back to the kind of economy and culture that we saw in the years leading up to the recession, where growth and gains in productivity just didn’t translate into rising incomes and opportunity for the middle class. That’s not something necessarily we can legislate, but it’s something that all of us have to take responsibility for thinking about. How do we make sure that everybody’s got a stake in trade, everybody’s got a stake in increasing exports, everybody’s got a stake in rising productivity? Because ordinary folks end up seeing their standards of living rise as well. That’s always been the American promise. That’s what JFK meant when he said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Too many boats have been left behind, stuck in the mud.
And if we as a nation are going to invest in innovation, that innovation should lead to new jobs and manufacturing on our shores. The end result of tax breaks and investments can’t simply be that new breakthroughs and technologies are discovered here in America, but then the manufacturing takes place overseas. That, too, breaks the social compact. It makes people feel as if the game is fixed and they’re not benefiting from the extraordinary discoveries that take place here.
This wasn't a perfect speech, but at least in my view, it was a pretty damn good one, especially in light of who his audience was. I never would have predicted that President Obama would give a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he explained why economic inequality threatens America and telling them that they share some of the responsibility for closing the gap. But that's exactly what he did.