“We said very early on … that we were going to engage the business community and that we would hold hands and we would have interactions,” Cedric Richmond, director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, said in a statement. interview. “You have to understand that these are the main employers of probably millions of Americans. You can’t not talk to them.
The cautious court between U.S. business and the White House Biden could play a pivotal role in the president’s agenda, as he pushes an infrastructure bill forward in Congress and pushes politically charged policies, including on immigration, racial justice and gun violence, without lawmakers. It also reflects a seismic shift in the political landscape, where not so long ago Democrats found themselves trying to pack down opposition from business leaders rather than working with them, and Republicans generally. pro-business aligned with US companies rather than periodically denigrating. he.
“What President Biden is realizing is that companies are now ready to engage and that they are an important voice at the table. They are not the only voice at the table, ”said Valerie Jarrett, who liaised for Obama with US business. “Big business doesn’t just rely on Republicans to defend their interests. They look after their own interests and get more involved.
Evidence of this involvement has increased in recent years. PayPal canceled plans to open a global operations center in Charlotte after North Carolina passed legislation restricting transgender rights in 2016. Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods have raised the age of arms sales to fire after the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida in 2018. But that was even more pronounced recently, when Delta and Coca-Cola denounced a controversial Georgian law that places new requirements on voting.
Over the weekend, more than 100 business leaders held a rare online meeting to discuss action to be taken following similar voting bills under consideration in states across the country. Lynn Forester de Rothschild, founder of the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism and one of three people who helped coordinate the meeting, urged Biden to express more clearly his desire to work with business leaders.
“My inclination is to trust him not to be in the pockets of companies at the expense of people and the planet, but he really wants to have a vibrant business community that takes care of our society,” she said. stated in an interview.
Perhaps acknowledging the risks, Biden has so far avoided the type of Public commitment that Rothschild wants. Progressives in the Democratic Party, long skeptical of American business, have pushed the president to resist the embrace of business leaders and have criticized some of Biden’s appointments that have corporate ties. When Biden met with business leaders during the transition, there were more union leaders at the meeting than CEOs. As chairman, he has only had two big meetings with CEOs, according to Richmond. In the meetings, Biden met with around 25 executives from companies such as Walmart, Ford Motor Company, AT&T Communications, Gap, Lowe’s Companies, among others.
Still, Biden hinted that he was looking to capitalize on the emerging social conscience movement on corporate boards. In February, at a CNN town hall, he signaled that companies could help advance policies around police reform, noting that they would be inclined to respond to the attitudes of their consumers.
“If you want to know where the American audience is, look at the money spent on advertising,” Biden said. “Did you ever think, five years ago, that every second or third ad out of five or six that you would turn on would be biracial couples?” Businesses, he added, “think differently. They are more open. And we must take advantage of it. “
A Biden adviser said the president also expressed similar sentiments towards private companies. “I think he has an appreciation for the role American businesses can play in solving what we would define as social, political and cultural issues – not least because he understands that businesses in contact with consumers have a imperative to understand their market ”. said the counselor.
Biden leaves much of the reach of White House businesses to his team, led by Richmond, who has ties to major oil and gas companies, and Brian Deese, who worked at BlackRock, the world’s largest investment manager. in the world, and is now director of the National Economic Council. . Sometimes Chief of Staff Ron Klain and Steve Ricchetti, adviser to the President, will also make a call.
Gina Raimondo, a former venture capitalist who clashed with unions as she cut taxes and eliminated regulations to support businesses as governor of Rhode Island, also plays a leading role in talks with the business community, especially on the infrastructure proposal, aka US jobs. Plan. She spoke to 100 business and union leaders on several issues, including Covid-19, infrastructure, manufacturing and broadband, according to her office.
“When you look at the outreach we do, it’s almost equivalent to a everyone on deck type situation,” Richmond said. “Some CEOs and many companies receive multiple contacts from many people.”
Against the background of all the awareness is the frayed relationship between American business and members of the Republican Party.
Big business has started to recompose giving to Republicans, in many cases withholding money from congressional officials who voted against certification of the November election. And as CEOs engage in battles for the right to vote, Republicans have responded by going harder.
Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) Pledged a sustained effort to defeat the “awakened capitalists”, whom he accused of waging a war of “retaliation and repression” against “anyone who defends electoral integrity”. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened “serious consequences” for businesses that fight back against Republican bills on election laws. “My warning, if you will, American business is to stay out of politics,” he said. “It’s not what you were designed to do.”
Although the White House has sought to capitalize on the fallout between Republicans and business leaders, officials remain cautious not to upset progressives and union allies. In recent weeks, Biden has taken the unusual step of encouraging an unsuccessful bid by Amazon employees in Alabama to form a union. And weeks later, when discussing companies that pay little or no federal taxes, the president referred to Amazon by name – but largely as an indictment of the current tax system. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos responded by saying he supported higher taxes.
“He kept our tall and reluctant [Democratic] coalition together without shutting down CEOs, ”Matt Bennett of center-left group Third Way said of Biden’s approach. “He didn’t hit anybody or try to play against each other, which is smart.”
Biden’s ambitious infrastructure package could test his ability to hold this coalition together. CEOs and business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, which represents the executives of more than 200 companies, have broadly rejected the U.S. jobs plan, criticizing tax hikes on workers. proposed companies that would pay for the projects. The Business Roundtable, which runs digital and radio ads against it, declined to offer an official to be interviewed for the story. “We have an open line of communication and good engagement with administration,” is all the group would say in a statement. Likewise, the Chamber of Commerce has not made any civil servant available.
Some CEOs and business organizations have complained about the administration’s lack of awareness. But the White House says such complaints are misplaced. They note that Richmond and Deese met with executives from Bank of America, State Street, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs in a session hosted by the Financial Services Forum and briefed 25 Business Roundtable CEOs on the infrastructure plan. On Tuesday, more than 4,000 small businesses answered the call to attend a virtual event on the U.S. employment plan, according to the White House.
The White House provided a list of nearly 60 companies and business groups that supported the proposal.
“It’s not about being comfortable” with business, Jarrett said. “It is about appreciating the importance of the impact they have on the economy and that it is not about an ‘either or’ having a relationship with business or work. It is “both and”. “
Robert Diamond, who served as director of private engagement at the Obama White House and is now a lobbyist, said U.S. companies generally support Biden’s top three priorities: fighting the pandemic, investing in infrastructure – but not corporate tax increases – and the fight against the climate. change. In this sense, the political stars have lined up for the current administration, giving them an agenda that appeals to big business while maintaining their credibility with their Democratic base.
“It’s a unique situation in that three of the big things the administration comes out of the door with, I think there is really broad support in the business community,” Diamond said.
Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.