Nearly five hours of top-level talks between the leader of the free world and the leaders of the corporate world Wednesday produced agreement on two fronts: They're making slow, steady progress toward a growing economy. And they've got a long way to grow.
At a meeting across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, 20 corporate leaders told President Obama that more consumer demand and less-burdensome government regulations still are needed before businesses can create millions of new jobs and reduce the 9.8% jobless rate.
In what both sides described as a cooperative session, the leaders of companies ranging from General Electric to Google applauded two moves the administration has made since what Obama has called a "shellacking" for Democrats at the polls Nov. 2: the compromise tax cuts package nearing passage in Congress and the free trade agreement nearly completed with South Korea that could boost U.S. exports by $11 billion a year.
Still missing was any commitment by the business leaders to launch new hiring initiatives while demand remains weak and the economic future remains uncertain. Obama asked the CEOs to spend some of the cash sitting on the sidelines -- more than $900 billion by some of the largest U.S. companies. They didn't bite -- yet.
"We focused on jobs and investments," Obama said as he walked back from the government's Blair House in below-freezing temperatures. "They feel optimistic that by working together, we can get some of that cash off the sidelines."
Some of the CEOs said they're already hiring. Others said further action by consumers and the government are needed to spur increased investment.
"It was a broad-ranging discussion with the president, covering everything from innovation to job creation, tax reform and education," said Mark Gallogly, managing partner and co-founder of Centerbridge Partners, a private investment firm, who attended the meeting. "One of the focuses was driving a greater level of investment in the U.S. in order to create jobs."
The session was the largest yet among many Obama has held with business leaders since coming to the White House 23 months ago. Yet for all the handshakes and back slaps, his relationship with business at times has been as icy as Washington's latest cold snap. He has railed against corporate salaries and imposed new regulations on Wall Street.
The history of more meetings than solutions hasn't been lost on lobbyists.
"That's what he's been doing for two years," said Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent more than $32 million in the midterm elections, virtually all of it to oppose Democrats running for Congress. This time, he said, the group's members "are hoping that it's a little bit more than a charm offensive."
Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest aides and his liaison to the business community, tried to assure them it was. "There was a lot of cooperation and a lot of energy and enthusiasm about working together" during the closed-door meeting, she said on CNBC. "I think it was a win-win-win for everyone."
Nary a negative word was heard from either side as they emerged -- and possibly for good reason. A mile away, the Senate was passing a two-year extension of the tax cuts enacted under President Bush in 2001. While the meeting was underway, U.S. and South Korean negotiators announced they would meet this weekend to fine-tune the agreement worked out this month on automobile trade practices.
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