WASHINGTON President Barack Obama stepped up efforts to woo the U.S. business community on Monday, seeking its help to tackle "burdensome" corporate taxes in a speech to a business group that has long been a fierce critic.
Obama, on a drive to win over business and independent voters before the 2012 presidential election, also repeated a promise to advance trade deals with Panama and Colombia that would help U.S. companies, but he did not lay out a timetable for getting the pacts passed.
"I understand the challenges you face. I understand you are under incredible pressure to cut costs and keep your margins up. I understand the significance of your obligations to your shareholders and the pressures that are created by quarterly reports. I get it," Obama told the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has often opposed the president for what it sees as his "big government" agenda.
Members of the Chamber, which the White House has accused of funding ad campaigns against Democrats during last year's congressional elections, listened politely but were mostly noncommittal in response to the president.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later told reporters that Obama had not gone seeking applause.
"Another barrier government can remove is a burdensome corporate tax code with one of the highest rates in the world," Obama said.
Calling taxes a burden chimes with the view of the corporate world, and is another example of Obama's efforts to repair relations between the White House and businesses after steep losses by his Democrats in November elections.
Chastened by that defeat, Obama has tried to do a better job of communicating with business, dialing down a sometimes acrimonious debate during his first two years in office.
'CHANGE IN TONE'
"We thought it was a good change in tone," the Chamber's president, Thomas Donohue, told Fox News Channel. "He came, he visited, and we look forward to doing things together."
Others in the audience at the Chamber's headquarters -- a stone's throw from the White House -- welcomed Obama's speech but were still wary of him.
"Are they going to follow through or is this just the politics of saying the right thing and it stops there?" said Juliana Zoto Efessiou, who launched a social media venture after her bridal boutique failed during the recession.
With one eye on re-election, Obama needs to bring down the unemployment rate of 9 percent and wants companies to hire more. He repeated a call for business to step up investment and hiring to mobilize "nearly $2 trillion sitting on their balance sheets."
"Many of your own economists and salespeople are now forecasting a healthy increase in demand. So I want to encourage you to get in the game," Obama said.
Business had fought Obama's massive overhaul of Wall Street regulation and reform of the healthcare system, and it resented the president's sharp rhetoric on executive pay during the height of the financial crisis.
The White House, while irritated by the Chamber's opposition to policies it says will help the economy, has sought to mend relations by employing softer presidential rhetoric and staffing choices that appeal to the business community.
Obama picked Bill Daley, formerly of JPMorgan Chase, to be his chief of staff and recently brought on General Electric Co Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt as his new top outside economic adviser. He also agreed on a tax deal with Republicans last year and has promoted initiatives to boost U.S. exports.
While talk of cutting overall corporate tax rates goes down well with some American companies, Obama might upset others by closing loopholes and slashing deductions.
Business had hoped Obama would outline a way forward on Monday for stalled trade agreements with Panama and Colombia. But the president made only brief reference to those pacts.
"We finalized a trade agreement with South Korea that will support at least 70,000 American jobs. And by the way, it's a deal that has unprecedented support from business and labor, Democrats and Republicans," he said.
"That's the kind of deal that I will be looking for as we pursue trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, as we work to bring Russia into the international trading system."
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Caren Bohan and Jeff Mason; Editing by Eric Walsh)