Chamber avoids specifics, focuses on positive message

U.S. Chamber of Commerce leaders who have been increasingly at odds with the White House and Congress avoided criticizing specific policy proposals during the official launch of the trade group’s much-anticipated “free enterprise” campaign on Wednesday.

Instead, officials at the well-heeled business association said the effort is a massive undertaking — likely to cost tens of millions of dollars and last for several years — to re-educate the public about the benefits of capitalism and the need to create 20 million new jobs in the next decade to keep America’s economy on track.

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“This is not designed to be an issue policy-based campaign,” said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the Chamber.

Heading toward the end of the Obama administration’s first year, the business group has often found itself in opposition to the president and Democrats in Congress.

The Chamber has opposed the creation of a consumer financial products protection agency, campaigned against a proposed government-run healthcare plan and lobbied heavily against legislation that would make union organizing much easier.

Add in criticism on climate change legislation that led some companies to leave the group, and the Chamber is treated in some quarters as an opponent of the administration, even by President Barack Obama himself.

The president said in a speech last week that claims the Chamber made in opposition to the consumer financial products protection agency, including that it could regulate “local butcher shops,” were “completely false.”

The recent criticism leveled by the Chamber is a change from earlier this year when it lobbied in support of the $787 billion stimulus package supported by the president and Democratic leaders in Congress.

Chamber executives emphasized the new campaign will be separate from its other lobbying efforts. Worried over an increasing reliance on government by business, the trade association wants to promote the free enterprise system to citizens and policymakers through a national ad campaign, grassroots advocacy and outreach to local and state officials.

In his speech announcing the campaign, Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the Chamber, stressed the campaign’s approach in trying to resolve the lingering recession.

“We don’t lay the responsibility for these problems at the doorstep of any one party, Congress or president. We are all in this together, and we must work together to solve the problems facing the country,” Donohue said. “This is not a campaign against anyone. This is a campaign for free enterprise.”

Donohue did criticize protectionism as well as additional regulations and taxes, saying they would hinder businesses’ ability to climb out of the recession.

Increasing trade — specifically, by doubling U.S. exports in the next five years — is one solution the Chamber leader said could help speed the recovery.

Despite its purported emphasis on the positive, the Chamber’s campaign is not being well-received by the trade group’s critics.

Labor groups see the campaign as a move to block tougher regulations on Wall Street and other measures unions support.

“The Chamber simply wants to keep the status quo that got us into this recession; it’s a level of dishonesty that would certainly make [America’s Health Insurance Plans] proud,” said Eddie Vale, spokesman for the AFL-CIO. “This is really no surprise, given the fact that these are the same folks who opposed ‘radical’ ideas like the weekend, the minimum wage and ending child labor.”

While not criticizing policies by Obama and others Wednesday, Donohue said he hoped the campaign would act as a measuring stick on whether or not future proposals would bolster free enterprise.

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“It seems to me we ought to have a stylus against which to measure all these issues,” Donohue told reporters after his speech. “It certainly is not about any piece of legislation or tax bill.”

But Josten said that although the Chamber has no plans to target specific policies, that may change in the future.

“They aren’t any right now,” Josten said. “It may evolve, as Tom said, to certain policies which we point out … trying to get members of Congress to answer in their head before they vote, ‘Does this do this or that?’ ”