President Obama paid a call on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a few days ago. No organization has done more to obstruct and derail the president's policy agenda: on behalf of the massive industries that fund its $200 million budget, the Chamber fiercely opposed health care reform, financial reform, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, environmental protection, and consumer access to the courts, often at the expense of small businesses. Last year, it killed a bill in the Senate that would have stripped big business of tax breaks when they outsource American jobs to other countries. Its litigation shop, lavishly supported by a who's who of corporate defendants in civil and criminal matters, has been remarkably successful in protecting big business in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Chamber is a highly partisan operation that will never cede an inch of ground to the President or his party.
Still, it wasn’t so much that Obama went to Chamber, or what he said when he got there, that bothered me. It was that he walked there from the White House.
The Chamber's headquarters is only three tenths of a mile from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a five minute stroll across Lafayette Park. Most Americans would never consider taking the car (except maybe Angelenos).
But when the President rolls, dozens of vehicles, from ambulances and TV trucks to communications and heavily armed Secret Service vans, go with him. It's spectacle, but, as President Reagan understood, the motorcade is a potent symbol of the power and majesty of the presidency.
Going on foot to the headquarters of corporate America, Obama surrendered not merely the trappings of power but, inescapably, a measure of the dignity of his office.
A year ago, Obama hoofed it back to the White House from a speech at the Chamber. That was right after his annual physical, and Obama joked that he needed to walk off some of his cholesterol. More importantly, that was before the mid-term elections, when the President’s party got walloped, thanks in no small part to the $31.7 million the Chamber spent around the nation, 93% of which went to elect Republicans.
His latest visit wasn't exactly "hat in hand," but by the President's own reckoning it was pretty close: “I'm here in the interest of being more neighborly," Obama told his hosts. "Maybe if we had brought over a fruitcake when I first moved in, we would have gotten off to a better start.”
"I'm going to make up for it," the President promised. Some of us think he's already done plenty for big business, and not quite so much for average Americans, most of whom are struggling to survive the aftermath of the debacle on Wall Street.
Mr. Obama was careful not to completely prostrate himself before the Chamber's bigwigs. But every remark that could be considered a point of disagreement was tempered with a nod to the Chamber’s ideology. The President defended health care reform, but instead of discussing the human toll of the private insurance mess, explained that it “made our entire economy less competitive.” He warned that “the perils of too much regulation are matched by the dangers of too little,” referring to the financial crisis, but did not discuss lost jobs or homes. Instead he said, “the absence of sound rules of the road was hardly good for business.” Invoking one of John F. Kennedy’s most memorable speeches, Obama said, “as we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America.” But the man who appeared before the Chamber conceived of his job far differently than he did when he asked Americans for it in 2008: “the final responsibility of government,” President Obama told the Chamber audience, is “breaking down barriers that stand in the way of your success.”
This week’s stroll was part of the President’s Chamber charm campaign, which began in earnest with the State of the Union speech in January, when the President seemed to declare the recession over because “the stock market has come roaring back” and “corporate profits are up.”
For one in five Americans still out of work, for the one in four homeowners whose homes are worth less than the amount they owe on their mortgages, that was a painful moment reminiscent of George Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech back in 2003 about the Iraq War. Obama spent the rest of the State of the Union on a combination of platitudes and pandering to his opponents, pledging among other things to get rid of unnecessary government regulations - one of the Chamber's perennial priorities.
There are plenty of other places the president could have gone if he was in the mood for an outing. The national headquarters of the AFL-CIO is only a few steps away from the Chamber, but he has never made that trip, as the California Nurses Association pointed out. Sadly, that would not be as controversial a venue as the President might fear: the AFL issued a joint press release with the Chamber praising the president’s State of the Union speech. Still, a visit from the president would have made a statement to the nation about the role working women and men play in what is known as the "real" economy (as opposed to Wall Street and the Money Industry). A fairly straightforward jog down Pennsylvania Avenue would have taken Mr. Obama to Consumer Watchdog's office on Capitol Hill.
We'll be watching where the President wanders to next. If you know what you are doing, and are clear about where you want to go, navigating the nation's capital isn't hard. But for newcomers who don't, it's very easy to get lost in D.C.