WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama received a cool reception from business executives Monday, who welcomed his first appearance before them since he took office but turned icy as he defended government regulation as crucial to the nation's well-being.
The executives applauded only sporadically during Obama's speech, in which he urged them to tap into their huge stockpiles of cash and start hiring.
"Now is the time to invest in America," the president said during the peacemaking visit to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, across Lafayette Park from the White House.
Noting that U.S. businesses are sitting on nearly $2 trillion in cash, he acknowledged that most of them have been waiting for the recovery to take hold and for consumer demand to rise before expanding again. But now, he said, economists predict a "healthy increase" in demand, and he urged them to accelerate the recovery by hiring more people.
Obama made the plea during his first visit to the chamber since he took office in 2009, part of a growing effort to reach out to business.
As a symbolic gesture, he walked across the park to the chamber's imposing headquarters, and joked about his relationship with business.
"I’m here in the interest of being more neighborly," he said. "Maybe if we had brought over a fruitcake when I first moved in, we would have gotten off to a better start."
Obama said his administration was working to help business by promoting the sale of U.S. goods and services overseas, tax breaks for investments, a proposed overhaul of corporate income taxes and a planned reorganization of the government to make it more efficient, starting with consolidating 12 offices that deal with exports.
He pitched his proposals to spend more on education and infrastructure as key to helping business by providing better-trained workers and more reliable and less costly ways of shipping goods and information. But he also launched a full-throated defense of government regulation, including his oversight of Wall Street and his new health care law.
"Few of us would want to live in a society without the rules that keep our air and water clean; that give consumers the confidence to do everything from investing in financial markets to buying groceries," he said.
He suggested that warnings that government regulation is automatically bad for business were wrong.
"Auto executives predicted that having to install seat belts would bring the downfall of their industry," he said. "The president of the American Bar Association denounced child labor laws as 'a communistic effort to nationalize children.' "
Business leaders reacted politely, but said afterward that they were skeptical at best.
Scott Holman, the CEO of Bay Cast Inc., a steel foundry in Bay City, Mich., said it was really all about demand.
"As a small business owner, I don't, and can't, go out and hire people just to hire people," he said, lauding Obama's outreach but adding that he didn't hear anything new.
"The proof will be in the actions, not in the words. We've got to see some regulations go away . . . so that we can in fact get back in the hiring mode," said Harold Jackson, the CEO of Buffalo Supply Inc., a medical supplies distributor from Lafayette, Colo.
Barbara Windsor, the owner and president of Hahn Transportation, liked Obama's pitch to work with the private sector to improve roads and bridges.
"I’m thrilled to hear that we're going to spend some money on the infrastructure and crumbling bridges, because that helps us quite a bit in the trucking industry," said Windsor, whose company is headquartered in New Market, Md.
Right now, she said, the problem remains a lack of customers. "If we had more freight to haul, we'd be doing more hiring," she said.
The president of the National Retail Federation said more scrutiny of regulations — not more defense of regulations — was what was needed.
"There is a whole host of policy issues and regulatory issues that need to be thought about,” said Matthew Shay, the head of the influential group.
The federation wants Obama to push for relief from the swipe fees that merchants must pay credit card companies and big banks. Last year's revamp of financial regulation allowed the Federal Reserve to order those fees lowered.
"The swipe-fee issue costs merchants and consumers $48 billion annually. Speaking very parochially, that is the big issue for us, but we think that's one that would be helpful for the economy," Shay said.
Bruce Josten, who's an executive vice president at the chamber and its chief lobbyist, said Obama extended an olive branch.
"The real question is what's next," he said, disputing the notion that the chamber is hostile to the president's agenda. "I've got a long list, I’ve got three pages of legislation we've supported. Everybody tends to focus on a couple of high-profile disputes."
Some liberals and labor unions criticized Obama's outreach to big business.
"Two weeks ago the president promised that he would work to rebuild people’s faith in government _ meeting with the biggest lobbyists in the country is hardly a step in the right direction," Erica Payne, the founder of the Agenda Project, a liberal group, said in a statement.
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