WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and 20 business leaders worked through lunch Wednesday on ways to boost anemic U.S. job creation and improve their own testy relations amid rising anxiety over the slow economic recovery.
The president said he wants ideas from business leaders on how to “seize the promise of this moment.”
The closely watched session represents something of a reset for the president as he seeks common ground with a business community that has bristled over the administration’s approach to health care, financial regulations and executives’ bonuses.
With U.S.unemployment at 9.8 percent and weak home prices and tight credit placing a drag on growth, the president was looking to shake loose more than $1.9 trillion in untapped corporate cash to help the recovery.
Agenda items included an overhaul of the tax system, ways to ease regulations on business and greater private sector investments.
A priority for business leaders is altering or eliminating regulations they believe are creating uncertainty and hindering growth, a step White House officials say Obama is open to considering.
The policy climate for Obama-business relations has changed since the November elections altered the balance of power in the capital, giving Republicans control of the House.
In recent weeks, Obama announced a new trade agreement with South Korea that corporate leaders applauded and negotiated a tax deal with Republicans that included new business investment incentives. The Senate passed that measure on Wednesday.
No major announcements were expected from the session. But Obama’s outreach meets the White House’s goal of sharpening his image as a president willing to reach out to former antagonists, a move that has angered liberals but could resonate with independent voters.
The office of House Republican leader John Boehner issued a statement calling the session a “nothingburger,” arguing that previous attempts had not resulted in any business-friendly policies.
“The White House’s ‘olive branches’ to the business community are more like twigs, really,” the statement said.
In his comments, Obama pushed his agenda of investment in education, cleaner energy sources and high-speed rail. And he spoke of making a firmer stand in Washington on fiscal discipline, an area where Congress and White House have long made promises but with little result.
Overall, Obama said the path to economic growth is clear, and he added: “I’m committed to taking that path. I know America’s business leaders are as well.”
Some of the executives are Obama backers and members of White House advisory boards who have worked with the administration for some time.
But there are past critics in the group, too. Jeff Immelt, chief executive 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.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, released from the hospital days ago after undergoing treatment for a kidney stone, was expected to participate, too.
“We have to be competitive, and the private sector needs to stand up,” said Austan Goolsbee, the 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.”
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