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After Months of Feuding, Obama Makes Overture to Business Group

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

President Obama is moving to cool down his war with the United States Chamber of Commerce, one of the most bitter political feuds of the last two years.

By last summer, the chief executive of the chamber, one of the nation’s leading business groups, accused Mr. Obama and the administration of pursuing “an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits and job-destroying regulations.”

But this week, the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, met with the chief executive, Thomas J. Donohue, to discuss international economic issues. In his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Obama came close to conceding the chamber’s main argument, that American businesses had concluded — wrongly, in Mr. Obama’s view — that his policies were antibusiness.

“I think business took the message that, well, gosh, it seems like we may be always painted as the bad guy,” Mr. Obama told reporters. He acknowledged that a relationship with the business community had not been “managed by me as well as it needed to be.”

Almost from the day Mr. Obama began pushing the health care overhaul in his first year, he began drawing the ire of top officials in the chamber’s headquarters, on the other side of Lafayette Park from the White House. And during the midterm campaigns, the president essentially accused the chamber of illegally funneling money from foreign sources to Republican candidates, a charge the chamber vehemently denied.

Given the administration’s agenda, business groups will continue to have plenty to disagree about, and the chamber has pledged to be aggressive. But the hope is that the difficult early stages of the relationship will cool in favor of consultation and agreements to disagree.

In the news conference, Mr. Obama did not mention the chamber. But he seemed to suggest that his often-repeated goal of creating “new rules of the road” for business needed to be better balanced against a new appreciation for the need to buck up firms that were struggling in the faltering economy.

“I’ve got to take responsibility in terms of making sure that I make clear to the business community as well as to the country that the most important thing we can do is to boost and encourage our business sector, and make sure that they’re hiring,” Mr. Obama said. “We do have specific plans in terms of how we can structure that outreach.”

The outreach includes the meeting this week between Mr. Geithner and Mr. Donohue, according to an administration official briefed on the discussions. The pair talked about the president’s coming Asia trip, including issues relating to the Group of 20 economic meeting, China and South Korea, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

The administration official said the meeting with Mr. Donohue was “actually pretty constructive on the international economic front.” In an interview, Tami Overby, the vice president for Asia at the Chamber of Commerce, said she would give Mr. Obama “high marks” for his recent work to complete a trade pact with South Korea.

Mr. Obama said his administration had already been “talking to C.E.O.’s constantly.” But he declined to be specific about the outreach he intended with business. He also said he would be taking American executives along with him on Friday when he leaves for Asia in the hopes of helping to open foreign markets to more American businesses.

Less than a month ago, in a public letter, Mr. Donohue accused the White House of a “smear campaign” against his organization. He wrote: “The administration and its Congressional allies are desperately trying to change the subject away from our stalled economy and nearly double-digit unemployment. They hope that by demonizing those who oppose their failed policies, they can fire up their dispirited and disappointed base and silence our voice.”

And yet, both sides have now had victories. Mr. Obama bested the chamber in the first two years of his term, passing health care legislation and an overhaul of financial regulations over the group’s heated opposition. The chamber clearly won the most recent round, helping Republicans seize control of the House.

In his remarks, Mr. Obama hinted at a new direction from the White House that could help reassure businesses.

“I think setting the right tone publicly is going to be important,” he said, “and could end up making a difference at the margins in terms of how businesses make investment decisions.”

Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.

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