WASHINGTON -- Since capitalism is the nation's official religion, President Obama must bow before business executives, who don't believe he has been sufficiently fawning. It wasn't enough for Obama to expend taxpayer funds, as his predecessor did, to save capitalism.
The president has had the effrontery to point out that free markets need sensible regulations to protect consumers from poisoned food, lead-laced toys and a reckless Wall Street -- a position that has angered many among the mogul class. So even with a roaring stock market and soaring corporate profits, Obama has been obliged to launch a charm offensive that includes a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce early next month.
This may be heresy, but here it is: The interests of Big Business and the needs of regular working Americans don't always coincide. As just one example, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, newly appointed as the White House jobs czar, heads a company that relies increasingly on foreign markets for its profits and its workforce. Since Immelt took over in 2001, GE has shed tens of thousands of jobs here while adding tens of thousands abroad.
That trend is likely to continue, not just at GE but also at thousands of other U.S. companies as their managers find they can manufacture more cheaply abroad. They can also outsource accounting, engineering and technical support services, among others.
That's why Obama emphasized "our generation's Sputnik moment" in his State of the Union speech. He laid out a plan to rebuild our economic foundation with targeted spending in such areas as modernizing our infrastructure -- everything from ancient sewerage to dangerous bridges to aging electric grids. "We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," he said.
His call for new spending on research, education and infrastructure ought to make him the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's new poster child for business-friendly politics. For years now, the organization of business executives has called for better public schools and more spending on highways, bridges and rail.
Last week, U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue issued a joint statement with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka supporting Obama's proposal to spend more money to modernize our infrastructure. Is bipartisanship breaking out in the nation's bitterly divided capital? If longtime adversaries like Donohue and Trumka can forge an alliance to support Obama's initiative, won't it easily gain congressional support?
Don't bet on it. And don't believe the U.S. Chamber's recent rhetoric about working more closely with the president, either.
The simple fact is that the business lobby cares more about keeping its taxes low and keeping government regulations off the books than it does about providing good public schools or beating the Chinese at high-speed rail and solar panels. Last year, Donohue's network spent millions of dollars electing Republicans who pledged to lower taxes, repeal health care reform and roll back new restrictions on Wall Street. Those are the U.S. Chamber's priorities.
And the business lobby got what it paid for. The GOP-controlled House has proposed to fight tax increases, defund health care and emasculate the Environmental Protection Agency. The GOP has also mocked Obama's new spending plans as more "big government" of the sort its members will oppose.
Oh, I expect we'll hear a lot more lip service from business leaders about rebuilding infrastructure and improving public education. Indeed, I've yet to meet a savvy executive who couldn't expound on the critical importance of having a highly educated workforce if the nation is to remain competitive. It's not that the Big Business fraternity doesn't want those things.
But it wants low taxes and less regulation even more. When it comes down to choosing a long-term strategy to promote economic growth or choosing a short-term strategy to promote corporate profits, its members choose the latter every time. If Obama thinks he can count on business leaders for anything else, he's naive indeed.