WASHINGTON – The Obama White House, stepping in where other Democrats feared to tread, has launched a potentially risky fight with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – attempting to bypass the nation’s most powerful business organization and develop independent ties to corporate America.
In recent weeks, President Barack Obama, his energy secretary and one of his most senior advisers have begun criticizing the chamber publicly, casting it as a profligate lobbying organization at odds with its members in opposing the administration on issues including consumer protection and climate change.
At the same time, the administration has been meeting privately with prominent corporate leaders – more than 60 of them since June – in an effort to develop its own pipeline to the business community.
The White House also has gone out of its way to cultivate another corporate group, the Business Roundtable, which is much smaller than the chamber but represents chief executives of many of the nation’s largest corporations.
“Our strategy is to reach out directly to the business community,” said Valerie Jarrett, the president’s liaison to the corporate world. “This is a shift. Previously, the chamber had served as the sole intermediary for business. That’s not our approach.”
Jarrett praised the Business Roundtable, saying that it brings member CEOs to White House meetings in addition to Washington lobbyists. In an indirect dig at the chamber, Jarrett said the Roundtable meetings were more substantive and valuable because they included not just a trade association leader but someone who actually runs a business.
The White House role in criticizing the chamber, predictably, has riled Republicans. But it also has made some Democrats nervous.
“The chamber represents thousands of businesses … most of which are apolitical,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat. “I’m not sure that that is the appropriate target to go after.”
Jarrett and other White House aides insist they bear the chamber no ill will and point out that the organization’s staff continued to meet with administration officials. Those sessions, Jarrett and others said, remained cordial.
But behind what chamber officials describe as a facade of White House courtesy, the long-unchallenged business group sees barbed comments and a challenge to its hegemony as the voice of corporate America in the capital.
“They pulled the pin out of the grenades and are throwing them over the fence,” said the organization’s chief lobbyist, Bruce Josten.
And he offered some criticism in return, saying that the Obama White House has shown less interest and been more superficial in dealing with business issues than any he has worked with for the last two decades.
Josten and his boss, chamber President Thomas Donohue, insisted they would be civil in the face of what they said were inaccurate White House claims. But the chamber is unaccustomed to such high-level criticism.
Not only has it built a powerful lobbying staff, backed by a multimillion-dollar war chest, but the group’s network of local affiliates has been organized into a powerful grass-roots force.
Republicans seldom have been tempted to challenge the chamber because for the most part it has been a soul mate on major issues. But even Democrats in the past have shied away from head-on challenges.
Under Donohue, the chamber transformed. Its annual budget quadrupled in a few years to $200 million today.
Two weeks ago Obama criticized the chamber’s role in opposing a new consumer protection agency, describing the group’s ads on the topic as “completely false.”