Bridging the gap between K Street and Obama

Never has the business community been faced with such a myriad of challenges to its industries and been less adequately prepared to meet them.

The Obama administration is engaged in a multi-front policy campaign designed to accomplish changes in the next two years before the president’s political capital diminishes. In just over two months, the White House has announced initiatives on healthcare reform, cap-and trade energy policy, increased financial regulation and higher taxes. Corporate America has been overwhelmed with potential new policy changes that could cost industries billions of dollars.

At the same time, the economic recession has caused most industries to contract and lay off thousands of employees, reduce work hours and cut wages. Companies are cutting costs in areas that may not necessarily affect immediate business operations. Many are pulling out of trade associations or downsizing their government-affairs personnel and slashing budgets. These moves will obviously do systemic damage in the long run because industries will not have the resources necessary to address new legislative initiatives.

The Obama administration is taking each policy issue and developing strategic communications campaigns around it. It is going outside the Beltway media and attempting to change the news environment in order to successfully pass each piece of legislation. Just look at how the president is selling his budget around the country, bypassing normal avenues of the national news and going directly to local media markets and Americans on the Internet.

In addition, the new White House is making it harder for industries to have an influence on Obama’s policy proposals. It has placed new lobbying restrictions and created an atmosphere in which government-affairs professionals are part of the problem with Washington. In fact, Washington Post editorial writer Ruth Marcus says, Obama is putting a “Scarlet Letter” on the lobbying community. Government-affairs teams now have to jump through flaming hoops in order to make their case to the federal government.

The combination of a slow economy along with stringent new lobbying rules has the potential to hamstring the creation of potential compromises on policy issues that could have a real effect on Main Street American businesses and hardworking families. However, just like a river with a strong current, there will always be those who will find a way around these obstacles.

Some savvy executives are taking a page right out of the Obama administration strategy. Even though times are tight, there are coalitions and companies running affordable issue campaigns to successfully combine strategic communications with limited government-affairs operations. They have employed comprehensive strategies to change the existing news and perception environment around possible policy changes. This will help them create an even playing field by developing the opportunities government-affairs professionals need to successfully compete.

Generating Obama-like strategic issue campaigns can effectively engage the perceptions of opinion leaders, policymakers and staff. The blend of strategic communications along with a limited government-affairs budget can be a powerful combination.

In addition, Obama’s strict new lobbying rules will simply cause lobbyists to seek assistance on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. There will be more pressure placed on Capitol Hill for members of Congress to advocate to the White House on behalf of those wanting their voices heard. For example, lobbyists might have limited access to the Obama administration over the recently passed stimulus package. But influential members of Congress can pick up the phone and call the White House on their behalf.

When times are tough, the industries that are the most creative and use all the means in their arsenal to protect their interests will survive business-changing policies. If companies utilize the different strengths of their industries to devise effective coalition issues campaigns, they will have a greater chance to influence policy and shape their own futures than those who do not organize.

Bonjean is a partner with Singer Bonjean Strategies, a full-service public-affairs firm. He was chief of staff for the Senate Republican Conference under Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and the top spokesman for then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), -Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), -U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans and other House members. Contact him at ron@singerbonjean.com.