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Obama, CEOs: Better relations to boost economy

| December 16, 2010 8:00 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) - Dogged by high unemployment, President Barack Obama reached out to business leaders Wednesday, seeking to forge a new bond while prodding them to shake loose untapped corporate cash and create more jobs.

Obama cast himself as a business booster during a nearly five-hour meeting with 20 corporate CEOs, sharing a buffet lunch while urging them to put more than $1.9 trillion to work for the economy.

"We focused on jobs and investment, and they feel optimistic that by working together we can get some of that cash off the sidelines," the president said as he emerged from the session.

Such round-table discussions with corporate and financial sector CEOs are not new for Obama. But this closely watched session represented something of a reset for the president as he seeks common ground with a business community that has bristled over his administration's approach to health care, financial regulations and executives' bonuses.

The president joined the CEO group after a short walk from the White House grounds across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House, better known as guest quarters for visiting dignitaries.

Obama sat at the head of a rectangular table and moderated the discussion, which White House economist Austan Goolsbee described as "overwhelmingly positive."

The group skipped a scheduled midmorning break and had a working lunch before adjourning shortly after 2:15 p.m.

Boeing Chairman James McNerney described the meeting as "constructive" and praised the teamwork displayed in the session.

"It was about how the White House and private sector can work together more. It wasn't a picture opportunity," Robert Wolf, CEO of UBS, said.

Goolsbee said much of the meeting centered on the amount of cash parked on corporate balance sheets, an accumulation that businesses blame on lack of consumer demand and apprehension over government regulations.

"The most important reason that people thought the cash was sitting on the sidelines was uncertainty about demand," Goolsbee said. "We've got to get the economy growing and then there would be a lot of motivation for people to use it."

The executives also expressed a desire for certainty in administration policy, and they applauded Obama for reaching a compromise with Republicans that would extend Bush-era tax cuts for all income earners, Goolsbee said.

"The tax compromise they thought was effective in that, in that it was some short-run certainty," he said.

Despite high unemployment, the meeting unfolded amid some positive indicators. Government and private-sector reports suggest the economy is growing at a faster rate, and that 2011 will be better than most economists thought just months ago.

That view is supported by a recent survey by the Business Roundtable of top CEOs, who said they were more bullish about job growth than they were three months ago.

Agenda items included eased regulations on business, clean energy innovation, increased exports, and investing in a skilled labor force.

McNerney said the business leaders and members of Obama's economic team left the meeting with specific tasks to devise plans for addressing such issues.

The policy climate for Obama-business relations has changed since the November elections altered the balance of power in the capital, giving Republicans control of the House.

In recent weeks, Obama announced a new trade agreement with South Korea that corporate leaders applauded and negotiated the tax deal with Republicans that included new business investment incentives. The Senate passed that measure on Wednesday.

Several of the attendees later expressed hope that the South Korean trade agreement would win congressional approval and encouraged the administration to pursue final deals with Colombia and Panama.

Obama's outreach meets the White House's goal of sharpening his image as a president willing to reach out to former antagonists, a tactic that has angered some liberals but could resonate with independent voters.

The office of House Republican leader John Boehner issued a statement calling the session a "nothingburger," arguing that previous attempts had not resulted in any business-friendly policies.

"The White House's 'olive branches' to the business community are more like twigs, really," the statement said.

Some of the executives at the session are longtime Obama backers and members of White House advisory boards who have worked with the administration for some time.

Among them are Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive who served as finance chair of Obama's presidential campaign. Wolf, a member of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, has been an Obama golfing partner and a Democratic fundraiser.

Others in attendance included American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers and Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

The White House sought to play down any tensions between the CEOs and Obama. The administration has often blamed corporate lobbyists rather than specific CEOs for fostering bad relations.

But it was Obama himself who a year ago took after "fat cat" bankers and described their bonuses as obscene - rhetoric that did not play well in corporate boardrooms.

Motorola co-CEO Greg Brown said the meeting illustrated that those days may now be behind them. "This is not an adversarial relationship," he said. "It is a win-win."