By Maria Saporta
Friday, January 28, 2011
Before the Nov. 2 election, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was leading the charge to get more pro-business leaders elected to Congress — spending millions of dollars to successfully elect dozens of new congressional representatives.
At the time, the chamber — chaired by Atlanta’s Tom Bell — was railing against the anti-business sentiment that it believed existed in the administration of President Barack Obama.
But much has changed in the past two months.
“It’s a love fest,” joked Bell, former CEO of Cousins Properties Inc. and now the executive chairman of SecurAmerica LLC, a security service provider.
As a sign of how far the president and the chamber have come, Obama has accepted an invitation to speak to the board of the U.S. Chamber on Feb. 7.
The chamber also made a rare joint statement with the AFL-CIO Jan. 26 supporting Obama’s call for additional infrastructure spending.
Bell said that he applauds much of what the president is saying these days, but he’s still waiting to see what he does.
“I think the election was a wake-up call for the administration,” Bell said. “That caused them to rethink their general approach to economic growth and job creation.
“In order to fulfill their objective and everyone’s objective to grow the economy, they realized it would be better to partner with the business community rather than fight the business community, ridicule the business community or overburden the business community with unnecessary regulations.”
Bell described this period as one “of exceptional détente” between the administration and the business community.
“Right now, I think there’s an honest effort on the part of the administration to find areas where we can work together and make progress,” Bell said. “They know they need to make changes. We have seen them change their position on the tax cuts, depreciation, inheritance tax, talking about moving forward on trade agreements.”
Bell also was encouraged by a couple of recent key appointments, especially William Daley, who is Obama’s new chief of staff.
“Daley is a great appointment if the president listens,” Bell said. “He understands the business community. He has personal experience and personal relationships. He can do a lot of good in terms of helping the president make significant improvements with the business community.”
Bell also said that naming GE’s Jeffrey Immelt as chairman of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness (which replaces Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board), was a “terrific” move.
Bell, however, is still in a wait-and-see mode.
“The president is saying all the right things, and the business community in turn is saying the right thing,” Bell said. “The proof is in actions, not words.”
Obama’s State of the Union address did leave Bell “underwhelmed.”
Although it was “directionally better” and the president showed an effort to “understand and respond to the needs of the business community,” Bell said the speech was “very short on specifics.”
Bell said the president still seems to focus on what government is going to do to increase economic growth and job creation rather than seeking private-sector solutions.
“He still thinks it’s all about the government,” Bell said. “What we need is to get the government out of the way. Stop the regulatory over-reach and let the free enterprise system work without unnecessary interference from government. You can’t have job creation without wealth creation. I still don’t think he understands the connection.”
Still, Bell said the real test will be on how serious the administration will be in reducing the national deficit. Obama would be well-served, Bell said, if he were to embrace the work that was done by his own bipartisan Deficit Reduction Commission.
“It’s created a conversation in Washington,” Bell said. “People actually are seriously considering what we need to do to address the deficit issue. That’s good news. I think the president has been persuaded that the deficit situation is unsustainable and we’ve got to do something about it.”
Then Bell summarized the emerging relationship between the administration and the business community.
“I certainly feel better about what Obama is saying now than what he was saying before,” Bell said. “Now we are going to have to see what he does.”