Obama asks business to get off 'sidelines,' invest $2T in economy

President Obama on Monday implored U.S. businesses to “get in the game” and invest the $2 trillion they hold in reserves in the U.S. economy.

Speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for the first time in his presidency, Obama acknowledged consumer demand has been slower than business or the White House would like.

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“But many of your own economists and salespeople are now forecasting a healthy increase in demand. So I want to encourage you to get in the game,” Obama said in remarks to a group with which he has openly feuded over the past two years.

“So if I’ve got one message, my message is now is the time to invest in America.”

Obama’s speech is part of an effort by the White House to reset its relationship with business ahead of the president’s 2012 reelection campaign. Whether Obama wins another term is likely to be driven by the nation’s jobless rate, which dropped to 9 percent in January despite anemic private-sector job growth. 

The response from those attending Obama’s address was mixed. An audience of about 200 Chamber members was polite but reserved, interrupting Obama only twice for applause. Some in attendance said they were encouraged by the president’s words, but added that they would not be rushing to pump their saved cash into new workers until they are certain the economy is recovering.

“We are not out here laying people off for the fun of it,” said Harold Jackson, the CEO of a medical equipment provider based in Colorado. Jackson said he would love to hire back 15 of his once 30-person-strong workforce. The problem is capital is still not flowing. 

With the first words of his speech, Obama made it clear he wanted to work with the Chamber. 

“I’m here in the interest of being more neighborly,” Obama told the business group at its headquarters, which stands opposite the White House. “Maybe if we’d brought over a fruitcake when I first moved in, maybe we would have gotten off to a better start.”

 Obama alternated between pledging help for business from the federal government and asking big business to do its part to help “win the future,” a theme he first introduced two weeks ago in the State of the Union address. 

If businesses lack confidence in the economy, Obama said, they should let him know about it. 

“If there is a reason you don’t share my confidence, if there is a reason you don’t believe that this is the time to get off the sidelines — to hire and invest — I want to know about it,” Obama said. “I want to fix it.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama didn’t go to the Chamber “so that everyone would clap when he came in the room.” 

Gibbs said Obama wanted to deliver the message that the only way to make progress in the economy is for business and government to work together on a host of issues that will help the U.S. compete globally. 

Obama has reshaped his staff to offer a more business-friendly White House led by Chief of Staff Bill Daley, a former Commerce Department secretary. Daley attended the speech along with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

The words and actions by the White House have been noted by the Chamber, which praised the tax-cut deal and the administration’s push for a U.S.-South Korea trade deal. Still, there are a number of friction points, including government regulations that House Republicans will target this week.

 Obama has launched a review to eliminate burdensome rules, but gave a nod to their importance in Monday’s speech, saying business has “a responsibility” to recognize that some rules are meant to keep the public safe. 

“Moreover, the perils of too much regulation are matched by the dangers of too little,” said Obama, who mentioned the financial crisis as an example of a sector that would have benefited from tighter regulations.

 Obama’s speech was criticized by the right and the left. Republicans hit Obama for suggesting new investments in the economy, which they said would add to the deficit instead of reducing it. 

Meanwhile, the liberal Agenda Project criticized Obama for “meeting with the biggest lobbyists in the country,” saying this was not a step in the right direction. Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch targeted Obama’s support for the South Korean trade deal.

Business people from outside Washington attending the meeting gave Obama good reviews. 

“This lets people know he is pro-business. He does want to work with businesses in order to bring back jobs and stimulate the economy,” said Ernest Green, president and CEO of E&E Enterprises Global, a government contractor firm based in Hampton, Va.

 David Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said he is interested in answering the president’s call to help reduce unnecessary regulations.

But Jackson, the CEO of the medical equipment provider, complained new regulations from Obama’s healthcare law and other legislation were forcing industry to raise prices. He also said that small-business tax credits introduced by the White House don’t help larger companies like his own.