CEOs find new friend in Obama

Corporate chief executives who have been disappointed in the Obama administration are suddenly singing a different tune.

Ivan Seidenberg, the Verizon CEO who just months ago criticized President Obama’s policies as a threat to business, on Wednesday said Obama “has shown a willingness to learn.”

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“The things that occurred in the past of couple days are extraordinary,” Seidenberg, chairman of the Business Roundtable, told a Washington news conference on Wednesday.

Seidenberg was remarking on the White House’s embrace of a huge tax package and progress on a trade deal with South Korea that had been stalled for years. Both measures give business a chance to increase profits through lower taxes and crumbling trade barriers.

While the tax deal has set off a war within the Democratic Party, the White House insisted Wednesday that the package would create as many as 2 million more jobs in the next two years.

The package would “provide certainty” to small businesses and corporations that have been worried about possible tax hikes, said Tom Collamore, senior vice president of communications for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby that has battled the White House for much of the past two years.

The nation’s largest business lobby said it will do everything it can to help the White House win approval for the tax package. The Chamber is also starting to talk about how it can help Obama sell the U.S.-South Korean trade deal to Congress.

Collamore said the idea of the Chamber co-writing a joint op-ed with an administration official highlighting the merits of the trade deal was floated on Wednesday morning.

After two years of playing defense, business is now on the same side as Obama in two huge economic debates.

And there could be more to come. One business official said immigration, education reform and infrastructure spending, to name just three topics, are all areas where Obama and business will have reason to cooperate.

The tax and trade deals seem to have opened a new chapter in Washington for business and the White House.

The Chamber, for example, fought with Obama over climate change, the healthcare reform bill and the financial regulatory overhaul. It spent millions to elect Republican congressional candidates in the midterm elections.

That acrimonious chapter is now over, one business source said.

A White House criticized as anti-business could benefit from the new spirit of cooperation, which comes after what Obama described as a “shellacking” of Democrats in the midterm elections.

Obama is looking to entice independent voters who backed him in 2008 to support his reelection in 2012. While the Chamber does not engage in presidential politics and will offer no endorsements, it doesn’t hurt to be working on the side of business.

The White House is clearly interested in touting its business bona fides, as shown by the release of dozens of testimonials touting the South Korean deal from major trade association heads and Fortune 500 chief executive officers, such as Ford CEO and President Alan Mulally and Boeing Chairman and President Jim McNerney.

A statement from GE CEO Jeff Immelt was particularly notable.

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Immelt made huge waves over the summer when The Financial Times reported that he described Obama as “anti-business” during a dinner with Italian executives. Immelt, who supported Obama for president, warned of excessive regulations and said the U.S. was becoming a “pathetic” exporter. GE later said the comments were taken out of context.

On Friday, Immelt congratulated the administration on the Korean deal, which he said would promote U.S. economic and strategic engagement in Asia. “We applaud the conclusion of the agreement and urge Congress to ratify it,” he said.

The honeymoon between business and the White House will not last forever.

Just a few weeks ago, Chamber President Tom Donohue warned of a “regulatory tsunami of unprecedented force” that had been unleashed by the government on business. He promised the Chamber would add significant resources to stem the tide.

Seidenberg sounded a similar note on Wednesday, warning of environmental regulations that could stifle growth.

But for the moment, one business source said, the two sides have a window to work together.

Working with business on the tax package and trade deal “certainly helps them,” this source said of a White House that has been perceived as antagonistic to business.