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Obama reaches out to CEOs

President Barack Obama will be meeting with about 20 business leaders today, taking yet another step toward the political middle as he moves to confront a still weak economic recovery and the new post election political alignment.

world Updated: Dec 15, 2010 13:55 IST

President Barack Obama will be meeting with about 20 business leaders on Wednesday, taking yet another step toward the political middle as he moves to confront a still weak economic recovery and the new post election political alignment. With new tax and trade deals as enticements, Obama is moving toward a wary rapprochement with the US business sector which opposed his efforts to overhaul the health care system and banking regulations.

Both sides come to the session with their respective wishelist: Obama wants the private sector to use its record profits to increase employment; executives want the administration to ease regulations they perceive as too onerous. Since the election, Obama has been holding private meetings with individual executives to discuss potential job growth strategies. The high profile meeting on Wednesday also serves a larger public relations purpose: It shifts attention from past confrontation and "fat cat" rhetoric to 'rolled up sleeves' cooperation. "We have to be competitive and the private sector needs to stand up," said Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. "There is opportunity perhaps in the fact that the corporate sector has begun to rebound and there is cash on their balance sheets."

Obama's Senior Adviser, Valerie Jarrett said some companies are recovering, others are waiting for demand to increase and others are "looking for some certainty in the regulatory environment." "Companies are sitting on a great deal of cash so it would be very important for the president to understand what more could we do to encourage investment that is going to lead to job creation," she said.

The executives who will gather privately at Blair House across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, include Obama backers and members of White House advisory boards who have worked with the administration for some time. Among them are Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive who served as Finance Chair of Obama's presidential campaign, and Robert Wolf of UBS, a member of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board and an Obama golfing partner and democratic fundraiser. Others scheduled to attend are also well known to the President, including American Express CEO, Kenneth Chenault, Cisco Systems CEO, John Chambers and Google CEO, Eric Schmidt.

But there are past critics in the group, too. Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, has complained that "government and entrepreneurs are not in sync." And he has called for progress in shaping an energy policy. "Our policy is uncertainty," he said in June this year. The outreach clearly meets the White House's goal of sharpening Obama's image as a President willing to reach out to former antagonists, which has angered liberals but could resonate with independent voters.

The steps are not lost on the executives. "The President himself, after the elections, has come out and said, 'Perhaps I have not been as friendly to business as I should have been'," PepsiCo chair and CEO, Indra Nooyi -- also invited to Wednesday's session -- told an Indian television interviewer last month. "And I think we are going to see a definitely different mood from the President because he realizes, he knows intellectually, that business is very, very important."

Obama also plans to meet with labor leaders on Friday, making sure he is not ignoring his allies and helping burnish his new image as a broker between foes. Unions were mixed in their reaction to a new trade deal with South Korea; the United Auto Workers supported it, while AFL-CIO Labor Federation President, Richard Trumka opposed it. They also said they were dismayed about Obama's recent proposal to freeze wages of federal workers.

Wednesday's meeting comes as the business sector itself has tempered its past criticism. Chamber of Commerce President, Tom Donohue, a sharp critic of past Obama initiatives, has said the giant trade organization wants to cooperate with the administration on jobs and on trade, as it did on the recent South Korea trade agreement. The White House, meanwhile, is considering an invitation for Obama to speak to the Chamber Board, next month. Last week, Verizon Communications CEO, Ivan Seidenberg, the Chairman of the Business Roundtable, said "the President's shown a willingness to learn."

The CEO session coincides with a slight uptick in corporate optimism about the economy. A survey of CEOs by the Business Roundtable released on Tuesday shows that compared to attitudes three months ago, more executives predict sales and jobs will increase by the middle of next year.

Time and again, however, business leaders have complained about the administration's regulatory environment, and the Chamber of Commerce has made battling regulations a priority for next year. White House officials say they are open to correcting regulations if they interfere with job creation. That requires a balancing act by Obama, who vigorously pushed for a tougher regulatory regime on the financial sector and whose signature health care bill added a sweeping new layer of rules on the private sector. "To the extent the criticism about regulation is there, how can it be made more streamlined, more efficient, operate better, he's totally open to discussing that," Goolsbee said.

The White House and business sector talks come in the aftermath of a report showing that the umemployment rate rose from 9.6% in October this year to 9.8% percent in November. "Everyone was jolted somewhat by that," said John Duncan, a Treasury Assistant Secretary in the Bush administration, "It added urgency that we not have a double dip recession". Duncan, who has advised his lobbying clients to look for outreach from Obama to Republicans over the next two years, said peace with CEOs gives Obama an opportunity to mend fences. "It's a new world," Duncan said.