WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama launched a vigorous defense of his economic agenda on Wednesday, rejecting critics who call his policies “socialism” and insisting he aims to boost U.S. competitiveness abroad.
Speaking to the Business Roundtable, which groups some of the country’s top chief executives, Obama called for support of his administration’s efforts to overhaul financial regulation, revamp the health insurance industry and create jobs.
“Contrary to the claims of some of my critics and some of the editorial pages, I am an ardent believer in the free market,” Obama said in remarks that were set against a backdrop of unease in the business community about his economic policies and legislative priorities.
Businesses — and opposition Republicans — are wary of the Obama administration’s regulatory zeal in areas such as healthcare and energy policy, and worry about a perceived tendency to increase spending rather than lower taxes.
Obama, a Democrat, said his efforts to enact sweeping legislation to overhaul financial regulations and set caps on carbon emissions to fight climate change were not aimed at thwarting businesses, and he reminded his audience that his $787 billion stimulus package included major tax cuts.
“We have arrived at a juncture in our politics where reasonable efforts to update our regulations, or make basic investments in our future, are too often greeted with cries of ‘government takeover’ or even ‘socialism,’” Obama said.
Obama’s legislative agenda is ailing and his popularity has dropped amid eroding public support for his policies. The president hopes reaching out to the corporate world will help rejuvenate prospects of getting legislation passed.
As part of that outreach, Obama said the U.S. economy had to evolve to stay competitive and assured the CEOs that he wanted their companies to succeed.
“We need an economy where we borrow less and produce more. We need an economy where we generate more jobs here at home and send more products overseas,” Obama said.
“I want your shareholders to do well, I want your workers to do well, I want you to do well. Because I firmly believe that America’s success in large part depends on your success.”
Republicans seeking to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats have tried to score points by accusing Obama of overspending to expand the reach of government. The Democrats’ recent loss of their Senate “supermajority” has stalled Obama’s healthcare and financial regulatory efforts for now.
After the meeting the CEO group commented broadly on Obama’s policies without endorsing them.
“We all agree that for America to continue competing effectively in the global marketplace, healthcare reform that passes Congress must address costs and improve access to care for all Americans,” the group said in a statement.
“We also must proactively address the risk of climate change such that we maintain robust economic growth and enhance our nation’s energy security.”
The president’s agenda got a boost earlier on Wednesday from the Senate which, in a relatively bipartisan vote, approved a $15 billion package of tax breaks and highway spending that aims to bring down the country’s stubbornly high 9.7 percent unemployment rate.
Obama called the Senate vote an important step forward.
Obama and his fellow Democrats are determined to bring down the unemployment rate before congressional elections in November. They also face a potential voter backlash over the hundreds of billions of dollars in spending and tax cuts they approved last year to blunt the impact of the recession.
Obama assured business leaders that the $787 billion stimulus package and other measures to support the financial system did not represent a permanent government shift.
“I think one of the reasons businesses haven’t been as vocal about their support is a belief that extraordinary measures like the Recovery Act or our financial stability plan somehow represent a lasting increase in government intervention,” he said.
“So let me assure you, let me be clear: they do not.”
He noted that General Motors, a year after near failure, was increasing production and paying back taxpayers for their support ahead of schedule.
Obama, who has alarmed business leaders with populist-tinged denunciations of big executive bonuses, said he did not believe government should be involved in setting executive compensation levels once companies that received government support had paid that money back.
“Most Americans — including myself — do not begrudge reasonable rewards for a job well done,” he said. “What has outraged people are out-sized bonuses at firms that so recently required massive public assistance.”
Obama said he wanted to work with businesses who would suffer from a transition in energy regulation that would put a price on carbon dioxide emissions to help curb global warming.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Simon Denyer and Philip Barbara