I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to catch President Obama’s comments in the latest issue of The Economist. But let me cut to the chase – he still hates CEOs. Not all CEOs, mind you, just the ones who criticize his policies – which would be a lot of CEOs.
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“If you look at what's happened over the last four or five years, the folks who don't have a right to complain are the folks at the top," the president said. “I would take the complaints of the corporate community with a grain of salt.”
When asked if maybe it was his policies that were alienating business types, including the administration’s efforts to curb climate-changing carbon emissions, the president dismissed the criticism.
“They always complain about regulation,” he said. “That’s their job.”
Nothing all that new from the president there. All of that’s vintage, boiler plate White House business talking points. But here’s what caught my attention in this fascinating give-and-take with The Economist – this little zinger:
"Oftentimes, you'll hear some hedge-fund manager say, 'Oh, he's just trying to stir class resentment'. No. Feel free to keep your house in the Hamptons and your corporate jet, etcetera. I'm not concerned about how you're living," the president said. "I am concerned about making sure that we have a system in which the ordinary person who is working hard and is being responsible can get ahead.”
Slam. Dunked. All you fat cat CEOs? Go suck an egg! The president reminding any and all that if he were so bad for business, why is business picking up? And why are the markets doing so much better than when he first stepped in to the White House?
But notice the way he made his argument, and how he lumped hedge-fund managers – a notoriously detested lot – to make his “fat cat” point? By reviving the notion all his corporate attackers have homes in the Hamptons and corporate jets, he was casting them as the ones out of touch – not his own administration, whose policies many argue, are keeping the American dream for so many small and medium-size businesses out of reach.
It’s human nature to shift blame, and the president is perfectly within his right to say Wall Street, in particular, has a lot of chutzpah. After all, who are financial chief executives to bitch at him? Barack Obama is the guy who did a lot to shore them up right after the financial meltdown. Agree or disagree with the wisdom of bailouts first started under his predecessor, it was President Obama who put those rescues on steroids and kept banks too big to fail, even with Dodd-Frank reforms.
But not all company bosses are bank bosses, or hedge-fund managers, or remotely wedded to the stock market. Most compete in far more vast, and oftentimes, less sexy businesses – chemicals, fossil fuels, basic manufacturing, to name a few sectors. And it is these businesses that are feeling the brunt of the president’s policies; indeed, new EPA regulations alone stand to add up to 20% to their costs, and at least that to their customers’ bills.
No wonder Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray fears a regulatory tsunami not only for his industry, but the country. “Make no mistake about it,” he told me. “These policies will be the un-doing of this great country.”
Hyperbole? To some, maybe. But there’s no doubting that for many company bosses at many companies, stiffer environmental regulations and health-care regulations, and tax compliance regulations, are adding significant headwinds to their businesses.
Many argue that the improvement the President talks about has come at great expense to their companies and personnel. Most large companies have downsized dramatically, so what improvement we have seen is more the result of cost-cutting, than revenue-generating efforts.
Former Heinz CEO William Johnson recently explained to me that businesses can’t win. “No matter what we do, it’s never enough,” he said. And when they dare challenge the president, they might as well paint a bulls eye on their back.
They try to expand their business overseas, they’re not patriotic. They refuse to hike their minimum wage, they’re selfish. “It gets old fast,” Johnson added.
And the personal swipes get old, too. CEOs tell me it’s hard to engender a spirit of bipartisan cooperation with the White House when the White House is always blasting business. The private jet thing. The multi-million-dollar pay package thing. The no-good, living in the Hamptons thing. Lots of things that resemble nothing of the day-to-day business world many bosses say they live and see all the time.
What’s most revealing about this latest exchange with The Economist is that not much has changed. The president still holds a dim view of his corporate critics, and tends to lump them into the same petulant pie. Is it any wonder so many aren’t embracing his now-and-then olive branches?
As one put it, after you keep getting poked in the eye, you best learn to just not put out your hand.