Torture Chamber

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JONATHAN CHAIT NOVEMBER 22, 2010

Torture Chamber

President Obama is offering an olive branch to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the right-wing business lobby that spent millions of dollars opposing his agenda and helping elect Republicans. Meanwhile, the Chamber has said it won't be working to unseat Obama in 2012, though this promise actually means it won't be working quite so openly to unseat Obama in 2012:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent more than $32 million to boost GOP candidates in 2010, announced Wednesday that it won't campaign against Obama in the upcoming presidential campaign.

But in his speech to the group's membership, Chamber President Tom Donahue appeared to leave his high-powered lobbying group a little wiggle room. While he said the group won't campaign against Obama, Donahue also said it won't back down from its opposition to Obama's policies, likening them to a "regulatory tsunami."

Translated from D.C. campaign code, that probably means the group won't run ads specifically calling for Obama's defeat or talking up potential rivals -- but will leave the door open to running spots critical of the president's policies, as it did in scores of House and Senate races in 2010.

Why is the Chamber taking a lower profile? Possibly because the White House is encouraging some competition to the Chamber's pro-Republican line:

The White House has been working behind the scenes to boost an outside group of corporate executives, known as Business Forward, to help set it up as a kind of rival organization to the Chamber of Commerce. The idea is, according to senior Democratic strategists, that the executives who make up Business Forward can stand up and support the president's agenda -- serving as a counterweight to Chamber opposition in order to show that the business community is not unilaterally anti-Obama.

In fact, Jim Messina, deputy chief of staff at the White House, briefed leaders of Business Forward on Obama's agenda at a meeting in Washington on Monday. The group is made up of executives from several major corporations, including AT&T, Ford, Facebook, Microsoft, Fidelity, Hilton Worldwide, Visa, Wal-Mart, McDonald's and Time Warner (the parent company of CNN).

Documents from the event obtained by CNN noted that "17 of America's most respected companies are working with Business Forward to encourage thousands of business executives, small business owners, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to get engaged in the policymaking process."

The documents added that over the next three months, the group plans to "host panels in Washington and around the country on consumer financial protection, trade and exports, cybersecurity and IP, health care and childhood obesity," all of which could be an opportunity to drum up support for some of Obama's signature issues.

If you recall, several companies pulled out of the Chamber in 2009 over its hard-line opposition to cap and trade. The Chamber is run mainly by Republicans who are committed to a classic class-solidarity brand of pro-business advocacy, in which business executives emphasize their shared interests in opposing regulation and protecting low tax rates for wealthy individuals. But there are a lot of executives who want to do something about carbon emissions and other national problems that can't be solved simply by concentrating more wealth and power in the hands of business owners and managers, and the Chamber doesn't want competition. So the apparent detente between the Chamber and Obama may be less friendly than it appears.

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posted in: jonathan chait, white house

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