Obama enlists Bill Clinton's aid on economy

WASHINGTON Wed Jul 14, 2010 8:31pm EDT

President Obama and former president Bill Clinton attend the memorial service for Senator Robert Byrd on the steps of the state capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, July 2, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing

President Obama and former president Bill Clinton attend the memorial service for Senator Robert Byrd on the steps of the state capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, July 2, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama sought on Wednesday to lift sagging confidence in his economic stewardship by enlisting the help of predecessor Bill Clinton, as a leading business group issued a scathing critique of the administration's policies.

Clinton, who presided over the 1990s economic boom, joined Obama at a closed-door White House meeting with business leaders to encourage job creation and investment, including in clean energy.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a top business group, issued a rebuke of Obama's economic agenda, accusing him and his Democrats in Congress of neglecting job creation and hampering growth with burdensome regulatory and tax policies.

Four months before the November congressional elections, Republicans have tried to paint Obama and his Democrats as anti-business.

Obama is increasingly turning to former President Clinton to help win over voters and the business community.

Clinton, seen by many in corporate America as sympathetic, has helped the White House by campaigning for Democratic candidates running in November's elections.

And Obama on Tuesday named former Clinton administration veteran Jack Lew as the White House budget chief to help cut the huge deficit.

In the hour-long meeting, Obama and Clinton discussed with the business leaders "a number of different strategies" for job creation, a White House official said. "They agreed that making buildings more energy efficient should be a priority as we move forward with energy-bill discussions."

In addition to that meeting, Obama also consulted investment guru Warren Buffett earlier in the Oval Office as he gathered views on how to boost growth. He ended up having to loan the billionaire a tie because Buffett's was frayed.

With unemployment stubbornly high, polls have reinforced Democrats' fears of big losses in November.

A survey by The Washington Post-ABC News showed 54 percent of Americans disapproved of Obama's leadership on the economy. In a CBS News poll, only 40 percent of Americans said they approved of Obama's handling of the economy.

JOBS SAVED

To counter such perceptions, the administration trumpeted an analysis from the White House Council of Economic Advisers that said government funding of clean energy, economic development, construction projects and other initiatives was spurring "co-investment" by the private sector. [ID:nN14180700] The report, unveiled by the council's chairwoman, Christina Romer, and Vice President Joseph Biden, estimated that Obama's $862 billion economic stimulus package had saved or created roughly 3 million jobs, and was on track to meet its goal of 3.5 million jobs by the end of this year.

Republicans ridiculed the report and said the job-creation estimates seemed off-base in light of the 9.5 percent unemployment rate.

"I will, in all honesty, nominate (the report) as a Pulitzer in fiction, which would be humorous but for 15 million American workers who face the harsh reality of no jobs," Republican Congressman Kevin Brady said at a Capitol Hill hearing where Romer presented the report.

House of Representatives Republican leader John Boehner called the estimates "fuzzy math."

An open letter from the Chamber of Commerce gave Obama credit for stabilizing the economy after a freefall but said after that, Obama and the Democrats "took their eyes off the ball."

"They neglected America's number one priority -- creating the more than 20 million jobs we need over the next 10 years for those who lost their jobs, have left the job market, or were cut to part-time status -- as well as new entrants into our workforce," the Chamber said.

"I don't believe the administration is anti-business," Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donohue told reporters. "I believe that the administration has a series of views of what they ought to do about social programs such as healthcare and environmental issues."

White House officials said they were surprised by attacks on Obama's policies from some corners of the business world.

"The stakes are far too high for us to be working against one another," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett said in a letter to the Chamber.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said it was "ironic" the Chamber was criticizing Obama's policies toward business, given corporate profits were up sharply in the United States.

"The Chamber has a different approach to certain issues but we have different responsibilities," he told reporters.

The Chamber released its letter to coincide with its "Jobs for America" summit in Washington on Wednesday.

It declined a White House request to have Jarrett address the event because, it said, the offer came too late.

BUSINESSES FEEL 'UNLOVED'

The Chamber is far from the only business group to express concern about the Obama administration's policies.

Ivan Seidenberg, chairman of the Business Roundtable, said last month there was a "disconnect" between Washington and the business community. In a speech, Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon Communications, also urged the administration to rethink its priorities.

High budget deficits are among the complaints business groups have lodged against the Obama administration. A healthcare overhaul, financial regulatory reform and proposals to cap carbon emissions are cited by some corporate chieftains as examples of regulatory overreach.

In an interview with Reuters, James Tisch, the chief executive of Loews Corp, said the Obama administration has made businesses feel "unloved" and reluctant to put money to work.

Tensions with the business community could prove troublesome for Obama on more than just the political front. U.S. businesses are holding onto a record $1.8 trillion in cash that they are opting not to invest. The administration wants to encourage them to use that money in hopes that greater investment will help jump-start the economic recovery.

While defending its policies, the administration has made clear it is listening to businesses' concerns and even offered an olive branch this week to the Business Roundtable.

In a letter to Seidenberg after meeting with him on June 30, Jarrett said the administration has an "an open door" for businesses and is "always willing to consider input."

(Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Steve Holland, Emily Kaiser and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham)

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