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What Obama Should Tell the Chamber of Commerce

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President Barack Obama will walk across Lafayette Park on Monday to address the United States Chamber of Commerce at its headquarters. What should he tell them?

Since the November elections, Obama has been trying to repair his relationship with business leaders, who believe that the President's occasional efforts to slap their wrists for corporate recklessness and major catastrophes (such as excessive Wall Street bonuses, the BP oil spill, and the Upper Big Branch mine disaster), and to promote sensible rules designed to protect the health and safety of American families, means that he is anti-business. Progressives and liberals, meanwhile, think Obama has been too business-friendly pointing to his recent appointment of Wall Street executive William Daley and GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. Most observers expect Obama to offer the Chamber an olive branch. Whatever he says, his speech will likely define the rest of his presidency. The president should use his bully pulpit to challenge America's business leaders to work for the greater good rather than their narrow self-interest. To make that happen, he shouldn't just ask the Chamber crowd what they want, but ask them what they will do to make America a better and fairer country. Here's what he should say:

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Thank you for the invitation to address you today. I'm sure we agree that vibrant, responsible businesses are essential to a healthy economy.

But lately I've been hearing Chamber leaders and other business groups demonize as "job killers" any effort to make corporations act responsibly. That's what you called the health reform bill. That's what you labeled our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That's what you said about our plan to protect consumers from predatory lending.

For over a century, business groups have been divided over how, or even whether, business and government should work together. Many business leaders have been enlightened and forward-thinking, recognizing the importance of using government tools to save the economy from the ups and downs of the business cycle and to make capitalism more humane.

Today, our country has hundreds of important protections -- valued by Americans across the political spectrum -- that were once branded as "job killers" by industries lobbying against them. We no longer use asbestos in our buildings, or DDT on our farms. Lead paint is no longer used in children's jewelry. Children no longer are in danger of strangulation from poorly designed cribs. Poisonous toxins have been removed from our workplaces. Driving is safer after we required every car to have seat belts. We eat better thanks to the nutrition labels on our food with fat, salt and cholesterol content. Our world would be much riskier without many other rules and regulations that protect our children, workers and communities.

I was elected President to advance the prosperity, health and well-being of all the American people. We must redefine what we mean by a healthy business climate. Yes, we must grow our economy, increase productivity and GDP, and expand trade. But a healthy economy is also one that provides good, safe jobs that expands the purchasing power of consumers, makes it possible for families to live in decent housing, offers access to health care, gives young people the opportunity to attend college, and allows seniors to retire with dignity and security.

We cannot eliminate all risk in society. And we must instill in all Americans a sense of personal responsibility to help themselves and their families. But government's role is to be there in circumstances when people and businesses cannot do it on their own. When oil rig disasters destroy communities and families, and hurt small businesses that depend on healthy waters, government must be there. Likewise, we need safeguards, rules, and inspectors to make sure that food companies don't cut corners -- for example, to protect consumers from the unsafe processing of peanuts that results in deadly salmonella poisoning.

But government must also be there before disaster strikes. In these and many other cases, stronger rules and more vigorous enforcement of existing laws would have prevented the horrible loss of lives and the extraordinary costs of clean-ups and lost productivity.

I know that the Chamber is not responsible for the actions of all of its members. But I think it would be helpful if the Chamber occasionally spoke out when some of its members display excessive greed, or act so irresponsibly as to endanger the health and safety of American families and communities.

The American people would have been proud of you had the Chamber publicly criticized Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy and a former Chamber of Commerce board member, whose Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died last year in a tragic and preventable accident, consistently violated federal safety standards.

The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster was a clear example of the inadequacy of our current mine safety laws. The mine was cited for 57 "serious" safety violations in the month before the explosion. The violations included several for improper ventilation, one of the causes of the disaster according to the panel investigating the accident. Mr. Blankenship regularly called mine safety rules "job killer" and "government intrusion."

And last year Chamber Executive Vice President Bruce Josten attacked the proposed Robert Byrd Mine Safety Act as "unbalanced and punitive" because mining companies "could be forced to suffer significant economic loss."

Couldn't the Chamber have expressed its disapproval of Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, which owned the Deepwater oil rig where 11 workers died and millions of oils spilled into the Gulf of Mexico because of shortcuts taken and weak regulatory oversight?

In the last few years, BP and oil industry lobbyists vigorously fought new rules that would have made oil rigs safer. They aggressively opposed new safety regulations proposed in 2009 by a federal agency that oversees offshore drilling -- which were prompted by a study that found many accidents in the industry. The tighter regulations would have required that drillers perform independent audits and hazard assessments designed to reduce accidents caused by human errors. Just last year the Chamber sided with the oil giant in opposing efforts to lift BP's liability caps and to allow higher compensation to the families of workers who died in the explosion.

The Chamber has complained about my supposedly anti-business agenda. But it is not anti-business to be pro-consumer, pro-environment, and pro-worker. And you know that the American people agree with me on this.

I want to remind you that just in the last two years:

  • The U.S. Chamber opposed financial reform to protect consumers and investors from irresponsible banking practices, arguing that banks could police themselves and that derivatives and other elements of the new shadow banking industry should remain unregulated.
  • The U.S. Chamber opposed health care reform, while accepting86 million in donations from the insurance industry to wage war against our efforts to bring common sense protections for health care consumers.
  • The U.S. Chamber opposed the extension of unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed, even though we're in the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.
  • The U.S. Chamber opposed campaign finance reform that would have required disclosure of corporate campaign contributions into political campaigns. The Chamber shielded major corporations who funneled millions into the last election cycle and remained hidden from publicly disclosing those contributions.

And that's just in the last two years. Looking back, The Chamber has opposed many reforms and rules that most American's cherish today.

  • You opposed the 1935 Social Security Act.
  • You opposed every increase in the minimum wage since it first passed in 1938
  • You opposed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978
  • You opposed the Americans with Disabilities Act that passed in 1990
  • You opposed the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993

Successful American businesses are an essential driver of economic prosperity. I want to help you invest, retool, and re-build. But I'm asking you to turn off the "job killer" message machine so we can roll up our sleeves and get to work for the American people - creating good jobs and creating sensible, enforceable rules that protect the American people.

We can work out the best way to do things, but I hope we can agree on the goals. We need financial markets that don't put us all at risk. We need workplaces that don't risk the lives of those who mine our coal, extract our oil or process our food. We need our food and consumer products to be safe and healthy. We need to make sure that every American always has affordable health care regardless of their income.

I look forward to building our partnership on this new foundation of common purpose to solve America's problems.

Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College. His next book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, will be published later this year by Nation Book. Donald Cohen is the director of the Cry Wolf Project, a nonprofit research network that identifies and exposes misleading rhetoric about the economy and government.

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