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 to re-assure the business executives that he’s no socialist.
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 which 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 new poster child for business-friendly politics. For years, business executives have called for better public schools and more spending on highways, bridges and rail.
But Obama’s initiative also brings the backroom politics of the business lobby under scrutiny. Newer bridges and better schools may be a priority, but those issues are not as dear as keeping taxes low and keeping government regulations off the books. Emasculating the Environmental Protection Agency is more important than beating the Chinese at high-speed rail and solar panels. That’s why the business lobby spent millions last year to elect Republicans who would fight anything Obama proposed — infrastructure spending included.
That’s a bit awkward for Georgia’s business and political leaders, who have campaigned long and hard for $105 million in federal funds to deepen Savannah’s port. Now that the House has been taken over by no-new-spending, earmark-hating Republicans, where will the money come from?
“I just think it’s about priorities,” said Georgia Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Clark. “We’re not going to Washington asking for more money, more taxes. . . The president said we’ve got to be about jobs, and this project will produce jobs all over the Southeast.”
Georgia may get the money — with help from a well-connected Democrat. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has gone to the White House to to promote the Savannah port. (The process would have been easier if Republicans had not campaigned against earmarks, which would have allowed local Congressmen or Senators to quietly tuck the money into the budget.)
But the Savannah ports expansion will have to survive a starve-the-beast attitude toward government endorsed by the very politicians who are most favored by the business lobby. Bashing the government may keep taxes low, but it doesn’t lay a foundation for longterm economic growth.