WASHINGTON -- Bernie Marcus, the billionaire founder and former CEO of Home Depot, is not a fan of President Obama's policies. He's also no big admirer of business leaders who work with the president.
"I don't hang around with guys like [General Electric CEO] Jeff Immelt," Marcus told The Huffington Post in an interview this week. Obama named Immelt as his top outside economic adviser in January.
Marcus, 82, is retired and spends much of his time on philanthropy, but also keeps his hand in political fundraising and influence: He has launched a new group aimed at getting CEOs and small business owners more media attention to talk about job creation.
The people he's recruiting should be the ones speaking for job creators, not Immelt, Marcus said.
"[Immelt] doesn't represent the people that, really, he has to represent," Marcus said. "The small businesses and free enterprise of this country, which are not the Jeff Immelts of the world, are probably 70 percent of the businesses in the United States. ... They don't have money for lobbyists. Therefore they sit back and they get dumped on constantly."
G.E., by contrast, has found more than $200 million to spend on lobbying over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
(Marcus retired from Home Depot in 2002. But the company he built is now the country's fourth-largest retailer, and since his departure it has become more of a player in the lobbying world, spending $1 million or more each year since 2007.)
Marcus said his new group, called the Job Creators Alliance, is a "long range" program aimed at airing voices of "people like myself who started businesses, who know what it is to create a business out of nothing, who know what it means not to be able to pay your bills."
"I want to make it easier for people to be able to survive in this world and create jobs. That's what I want to do," Marcus said, adding that most of the jobs created by GE and Immelt "are overseas. I don't know how many he's creating in the United States."
Complaints have surfaced that GE has sent more jobs overseas than it has created in the U.S. GE has said the company has created 6,000 U.S jobs in the last two years.
GE spokesman Andrew Williams also said that there are at least two members of the jobs council that Immelt chairs at the White House who run small businesses, and that the group's first meeting focused on how to help small- and medium-size companies. They've also held meetings, Williams said, with "dozens" of small business owners.
"They've worked hard to be inclusive of the issues and concerns of small business," Williams said.
Still, one of the themes being hammered by JCA participants is that it is harder now to start a business in the U.S. than it has been in the past. They cite regulations promulgated by federal agencies, uncertainty over future levels of taxation and rising health care costs.
"It was a lot easier for me to start my business 30 years ago than it is for an entrepreneur starting out today to do the same thing," said Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, in a recent Bloomberg TV interview.
The JCA has an executive director, Jeanette Goodman, who spent 20 years at conservative think tank National Center for Policy Analysis. So far, 12 current or former business owners are participating.
Goodman said she wants 100 business owners on the JCA roster within the next year. She added that they want to attract business owners who run very small organizations, with just a few employees, to speak as part of their team. But she and Marcus admitted having a hard time signing those small business owners up.
"We have to find people who are wiling to go on the air; a lot of people are concerned that if they go on the air their business could be harmed," Goodman said in an interview. "Their concern is that they don't want to be audited, they don't want to have any pushback."
Marcus, who himself has made dramatic comments in the past when talking politics, grew agitated when relating how others have expressed fears about stating an opinion.
"They're afraid that if they go out and they speak out like Bernie Marcus or [casino magnate] Steve Wynn, that the IRS is going to be in on them, the SEC is going to be on them," Marcus said. "They are frightened to death."
"Now I have never seen that before in all the years I have been in this country," Marcus continued. "This is getting to be like a fascist country when you're afraid to disagree with somebody. And it's becoming more and more evident."
Wynn, a billionaire himself, recently drew attention with comments of his own about what he said was Obama's "weird political philosophy."
"It is Obama that is responsible for this fear in America," Wynn said on a conference call with investors last week. "The guy keeps making speeches about redistribution and maybe we ought to do something to businesses that don't invest -- they are holding too much money. You know, we haven’t heard that kind of talk except from pure socialists. Everybody is afraid of the government and there is no need soft-pedaling it. It is the truth."
"I am a Democratic businessman," Wynn continued. "I support Harry Reid, I support Democrats and Republicans, and I am telling you that the business community in this country is frightened to death of the weird political philosophy of the President of the United States. And until he is gone, everybody is going to be sitting on their thumbs."
The comments by Wynn and Marcus offer indications that Obama's efforts to shed the 'anti-business' label, which hounded him last year in the run-up to the fall elections, have not been as successful as he perhaps would have liked.
In addition to his appointment of Immelt to the economic advisory panel, Obama hired Bill Daley -- a former corporate executive -- as his chief of staff in January, made a publicized pilgrimage to speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and has publicly pushed for approval of long-stalled free trade agreements.
But the formation of the JCA is just the latest proof that the business community remains aggrieved and unappeased.
JCA member Mike Whalen is the founder and CEO of a hospitality company, Heart of America, based in Iowa with annual sales of about $80 million. He said that federal regulators have local banks "paralyzed" and afraid to make loans.
Whalen is building a $7 million Fairfield Inn and Suites in Des Moines and said he was rejected for a loan by roughly 25 banks. Once he secured a loan, he had to have almost $3 million in capital to get the project off the ground.
"If I didn't have $2.5 to $3 million of investment capital to put into that little $7 million hotel, and then I could borrow $4 million, it wouldn't exist," he said. "Right now [the banks] are looking at a third to 40 percent [down for a loan]. ... So unless my company makes money, it won't ever grow."
Whalen said he is frustrated by the way that financial success is seen with suspicion, underpinning the drive for regulation in Washington.
"There is a general perspective that we would pollute, we discriminate, we would desecrate ... if it wasn't for the constraining arm of government," he said. "And I think that overwhelmingly is not the case from the people I know in business. That's the fundamental misperception."
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