There’s a reason a relaxed President Barack Obama lingered so long on Wednesday with members of the Business Roundtable. He was enjoying their company.
That’s not as odd as it sounds for a president sometimes reputed to be hostile toward business, for several reasons.
To begin with, the Roundtable is the white-glove business lobby for the biggest of the big. It occupies an entirely different neighborhood than the grittier, more combative advocates from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the National Federation of Independent Business. In addition, the rising clout of moderates from the technology and financial sectors has leavened the conservatism of its members from industries like mining and oil.
The group’s preference for pragmatism over ideology makes it a potential ally for any president—even a liberal Democratic one. It has proven it by backing the administration’s position, not that of tea party Republicans, on issues such as comprehensive immigration reform and avoiding government shutdowns and debt crises.
The other reason Obama relished the session was the chance to explain his burden to fellow executives. When Fred Smith of FedEx asked why the president doesn’t just call on Congress to finance more infrastructure spending before going home for Christmas, the president explained that lawmakers aren’t nearly so pliable as members of any of corporate board of directors.
The business leaders, for their part, tend to get as frustrated as the rest of the country with Washington dysfunction.
“They throw up their hands like all the rest of us do,” said Tony Fratto, a former aide to President George W. Bush who now advises major companies. Ambitious goals such as overhauling the corporate tax system, he added, appear “too far” to reach in the next two years.
So what will the nearly two-hour hangout produce? With limited hopes for concrete action, Obama may be content to have nurtured relationships with individual executives. And notwithstanding their clout and status in C-suites, the executives enjoyed basking in a different kind of celebrity.
“CEOs still go home and tell their kids they were shoulder-to-shoulder with the president,” observed Johanna Schneider, former Roundtable communications chief. “No matter who it is and what the president’s ratings are, it’s still impressive to be with the commander in chief.”