Business groups woo Michelle Obama

Business groups are cozying up to Michelle Obama, aiding her signature initiatives to make inroads with the White House.

Trade associations say working with the first lady on the “Let’s Move” anti-obesity campaign and Joining Forces veteran aid initiative has improved their relationship with the administration, helping them on unrelated issues.

ADVERTISEMENT
“We have earned their trust. We have earned their respect because we have delivered on what we have promised,” said Steve Caldeira, president and CEO of the International Franchise Association (IFA).

“The relationships we have built with the White House on veterans has made our industry voice heard on other issues, such as ObamaCare,” he said.

The cooperation has also benefitted the first lady, who has used business groups, and not Congress, to advance her goals.

“It’s really been a successful effort on her part,” said Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University and an expert on first ladies.

The first lady has worked with a host of powerful trade groups and corporations, including the Chamber of Commerce and Wal-Mart, which do not always agree with other White House policies.

To the dismay of unions, she has repeatedly praised Wal-Mart for its commitment to hiring veterans and making healthy food affordable for families. She made one of its stores a stop on her “Let’s Move” anniversary tour.

She has also reached out directly to business groups, speaking to the Chamber and Grocery Manufacturers Association.

“In other first lady projects I know about there was never such a level of partnership with business,” Gutin said.

Michelle Obama’s office declined to comment for this story.

Past first ladies have marched up to Capitol Hill to champion their issues and to press Congress for legislation. Laura Bush testified before a Senate committee on early childhood development, for example, while Hillary Clinton as first lady championed healthcare.

Obama has shunned legislative opportunities when they have presented themselves.

In 2010, Obama strongly supported the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which set new school lunch standards, but she didn’t go to Capital Hill to testify for the legislation despite speculation she might make an appearance.

In fact, Obama told a Grocery Manufacturers Association conference in March of 2010 that government is not the answer to childhood obesity.

“We can’t solve this problem by passing a bunch of laws in Washington,” she said at the time.

Instead, the first lady has worked with business, and the “Let’s Move” partnership Web page reads like a who’s who in corporate America.

It praises Walgreens, SuperValu Inc. and Wal-Mart for expanding their stores into communities with little access to healthy food. It commends Darden — a restaurant group that owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster and other chains — for improving its kids’ menu; and noted the American Beverage Association fulfilled its commitment to put clear calorie labels on its drinks.

Working with the first lady does not guarantee anything from the White House, of course.

The Chamber and White House frequently battled during Obama’s first term, and a spokeswoman for the business lobby said that despite the cooperation, “at the end of the day, they know where we stand on the policies important to the business community, and that we are ready and willing to work with them on issues where there is common ground.”

At the same time, companies that work with the first lady get the benefit of rubbing shoulders with the most popular person in the Obama White House.

A Marist poll released in March found 63 percent held a favorable view of the first lady. So it’s not small news when she gives a company an endorsement, such as by praising companies like Walt Disney and Birds Eye for advertising healthy food to kids.

It can also at least engender positive feelings on other work.

The National Restaurant Association has worked with the first lady on many “Let’s Move” items, finding a White House platform to showcase the industry’s work on nutrition.

“I would like to think our proactive work with the first lady’s team has had a positive effect,” said Scott DeFife, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association.

Caldeira, the CEO of the franchise association, said: “Without question, our work with the White House on veterans-related employment issues has helped strengthen our relationship.

“Does that mean that everything we advocate for we get? Absolutely not,” he added. “But it has helped us create a level of trust on other issues.”