WASHINGTON — Echoing John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama prodded business leaders Monday to "ask yourselves what you can do for America," not just for company bottom lines, even as he sought to smooth his uneasy relations with the nation's corporate executives.
Speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the president urged the business community to help accelerate the slow economic recovery by increasing hiring and unleashing some of the $2 trillion piling up on their balance sheets.
"I want to encourage you to get in the game," Obama said.
He enumerated new efforts by his administration to improve the nation's business infrastructure, spend more to support entrepreneurs and foster greater innovation. He vowed to address "a burdensome corporate tax code," and go after "unnecessary and outdated regulations."
But to a polite, subdued audience of about 200 he also offered a stout defense of health care and financial regulation overhauls – two signature administration initiatives that caused some of the most rancorous disputes with the Chamber last year.
"I want to be clear: Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America," Obama said.
"As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation."
President Kennedy, in his inaugural address 50 years ago, memorably declared, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
Reacting, Bruce Josten, the Chamber's chief lobbyist, said, "Companies first, unlike a government, have to sustain their operation and that requires being able to pay your employees, vendors, suppliers and bondholders."
"Bottom line, the most patriotic thing a company can do is ensure it is in business and take steps to stay in business; otherwise everyone loses and more people lose their jobs," he said.
The U.S. Chamber mounted a vigorous lobbying campaign against the health care bill and the financial regulation overhaul, particularly a provision creating a consumer financial protection agency. It also spent at least $32 million in the 2010 elections, most of it in advertising campaigns against Democrats.
Still, the Chamber and the White House have mutual interests.
Obama needs the centrist cloak that the business community can offer, as he seeks to win independent voters for his re-election bid next year. The Chamber can benefit by softening the sharp edges it developed fighting the health care overhaul and tighter financial rules.
The Chamber can also act as Republican ballast against the influence of the conservative tea party movement.
Both the White House and the Chamber face Republican opposition from fiscal hawks within the GOP to increased spending on public works, from roads and bridges to wireless networks. The Chamber has called for such spending to be paid for with user fees, such as a higher gasoline tax. The White House has not embraced that approach, saying only that the administration wants to create an "infrastructure bank" to attract private capital.
The Chamber, which has long advocated changes in immigration law, also could help Obama by pushing Republicans reluctant to take up such a politically charged issue.
Obama is aiming to repair relations with corporate leaders even as he tries to persuade major businesses to spend their cash, expand hiring and promote economic growth. Obama said his appearance at the Chamber was in the interest of "being more neighborly." Indeed, the trade organization's headquarters are so close to the White House that Obama was able to walk across Lafayette Square to deliver his remarks.
Business leaders reacted cautiously to the overarching message of the speech, saying it addressed issues that have created uncertainty in the private sector – from taxes to regulation. Still, they said the address was short on details, and some noted that before businesses feel secure in risking shareholder value, the economy is going to have to show sustained growth
"It's an axiom of business that you're going to grow when you have demand," said Johanna Schneider, executive director for external relations at the Business Roundtable.
Obama offered some sympathy.
"I understand the challenges you face," he said. "I understand that you're under incredible pressure to cut costs and keep your margins up. I understand the significance of your obligations to your shareholders. I get it."
Obama and his aides, however, maintain that corporate investments now would have long term benefits and say the government is prepared to step in to make such commitments worthwhile by increasing its own spending in research and education and by easing red tape, including providing a more streamlined patent approval system.
The speech was highly anticipated by the business community. Chamber President Thomas Donohue introduced Obama, saying seats at the event were "one of the hottest tickets in town."
Donohue said American business had an "absolute commitment to working with you and your administration to advance our shared objectives."
He added: "Our focus is finding common ground to ensure America's greatness in the 21st century."
Some liberals bristled at Obama's outreach.
"While President Obama calls on businesses to invest in America, the only thing the U.S. Chamber's investing in is their own bottom line – lining the pockets of corporate CEOs while shipping the jobs of hard-working Americans overseas," said Christy Setzer, spokeswoman for U.S. Chamber Watch, a pro-labor group.
Obama cited a recently finalized trade pact with South Korea, which is awaiting ratification by Congress, as an example of the type of agreement he would like to pursue with Panama and Colombia. But the president did not specifically detail what adjustments were still needed in those negotiations to complete a deal.
Following Obama's speech, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell pressed for action, saying, "The time for delay on these two agreements is over."
"It won't be enough for Republicans and it shouldn't be enough for the business community to allow the administration's trade agenda to start and end with South Korea," he said. "We should be passing all pending trade agreements and inking new ones on a bipartisan basis – even when it requires the president bringing his own party along."
Schneider, of the Business Roundtable, commended Obama for doing "a very positive thing" with his speech.
She said his prescriptions for the business sector "were very broad, but nonetheless they addressed the question of uncertainty."
"The next steps are more specific proposals," she said.