Biden and big business: It’s complicated

President Joe Biden
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President Biden has had an up-and-down relationship with business in the first year of his presidency that has seen him working with big companies on some issues and stoking fights with corporations on others.

The push-and-pull nature of the relationship has taken a central role as Biden seeks to move his two-part domestic economic agenda through Congress.

Biden has been aligned with the business community on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was backed by some Republicans in the Senate and is a big favorite of Democratic centrists in the House.

But Biden had dealt with pushback from business on the $3.5 trillion social spending measure, which would include a higher corporate tax rate. That measure is backed by progressives, many of whom are more cool on the infrastructure package.

The president for the most part does not take a hostile tone toward corporations, though he says they and the wealthy should pay “their fair share” when it comes to taxes.

He’s aligned himself with businesses where they’ve found common ground, including on Wednesday when he hosted executives from major companies at the White House to press Republicans on raising the debt ceiling.

Biden’s chief focus upon entering office was addressing the coronavirus pandemic by boosting vaccine production and distributing economic assistance to Americans and businesses. His $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, approved by Democrats and opposed unanimously by Republicans, earned broad support from the business community.

That set a positive tone with business for Biden, who is under pressure to take on corporate America from the liberal base of the Democratic Party. That’s not always a comfortable spot for the more centrist and pragmatic Biden.

Big business has historically been more aligned with the Republican Party, but former President Trump frustrated corporations with his immigration and trade policies, even while he pleased them with his tax cuts and deregulatory agenda.

Business groups were also disappointed when House GOP leaders decided to whip against the infrastructure bill, which was backed by no less than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the upper chamber.

Julian Zelizer, a political history professor at Princeton University, said the relationship has been notable in that it has not been particularly tense, even as Biden seeks to radically overhaul the nation’s social safety net. He said at least one reason is the pandemic, which is the most important issue for business.

“I think for business, like everyone else, the main objective is very simple in some ways and it’s to recover from the pandemic,” Zelizer said. “In that way, I think the business community is kind of aligned with a lot of what Biden is trying to do overall, certainly with vaccines and some kinds of federal spending.”

In September, Biden held up businesses that have mandated coronavirus vaccines to rally more private sector organizations behind his vaccine requirement. The administration is trying to convince companies to get ahead of the requirement by implementing their own mandates, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration works on the rule.

Businesses broadly have welcomed the requirement, but concerns persist about the implementation due to the fines that will be associated with a failure to comply.

While Trump was unpredictable, Biden has had few big surprises for business. He also doesn’t call out companies in the way that Trump did, though there have been exceptions.

The White House got into a public battle with Facebook after Biden criticized the company starkly for not doing enough to suppress coronavirus misinformation. Administration officials also targeted the meat industry over rising prices in September, causing a dust-up with Tyson Foods.

On trade issues, a point of tension between Trump and corporate America, Biden has not done a 180-degree turn and has kept tariffs on Chinese goods in place.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said earlier this week that the administration would restart a targeted exclusion process to provide U.S. businesses relief from the existing tariffs, after consulting with business and labor representatives and workers as part of a broader China trade policy review.

“We place a lot of weight in what we hear from our businesses, especially our small and medium-sized businesses that certainly have been impacted by the tariffs,” Tai told an audience following a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Biden administration has literally brought businesses to the table in other settings.

On Wednesday, Biden welcomed bank CEOs and leaders from Raytheon, Nasdaq, AARP, the National Association of Realtors and Intel to raise alarm about the U.S. hurtling toward default.

“We are simply playing with fire right now,” said Citi CEO Jane Fraser, after Biden lambasted Republicans for “playing Russian roulette with the U.S. economy.”

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Biden’s top liaison to the business community, speaks with business leaders daily “to understand their challenges and work with them to find common ground and solutions,” according to an agency spokesman, including convening roundtables on supply chains and other issues.

Raimondo, who has been a key surrogate of Biden’s economic agenda, also scolded the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last month after the group launched an ad campaign aimed at taking down the reconciliation package.

“I was very disappointed in that. It’s not productive. It’s not helpful,” she told CNN. “What they should be doing is coming to the table, talking to us and telling us what they can live with.”

Many of Biden’s nominees have reflected recommendations of progressive Democrats and have not always pleased the business community.

Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, a group that has worked against nominees with corporate connections, praised Biden’s nominees for financial regulatory positions. He singled out Saule Omarova, the president’s choice to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, noting that many of the attendees at Wednesday’s debt ceiling meeting are opposed to her nomination.

Hauser did express criticism of administration officials with corporate connections such as White House adviser Steve Ricchetti, a former lobbyist; White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients; and Raimondo, whom he described as “one of the most corporate-friendly Democrats in the country.”

“Overall, some of the most connected people have been kept out,” Hauser said.

Tags biden administration Donald Trump Gina Raimondo Jeff Zients Joe Biden Katherine Tai Mitch McConnell Steve Ricchetti

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