Is Obama anti-business?

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Mort Zuckerman repeated a charge in the Financial Times this week that President Barack Obama is “anti-business” and that is why the U.S. recovery remains anemic and corporate America isn’t hiring. Here’s a bit of what the editor of U.S. News & World Report had to say:

The fear is that a double-dip, or worse, is now upon us. Those who might help us escape are now being held back by the anti-business policies of President Barack Obama.

Huh? I’ve heard this claim again and again and again, and have yet to see anyone provide any real evidence to support it. I’d argue that Obama has been a very pro-business president. And I think it is about time U.S. corporate leaders stop blaming the White House for the poor economy and start hiring hard-working Americans. Here’s what I mean:

Why exactly does Zuckerman believe Obama is “anti-business”? Hard to say, since he doesn’t provide meaningful examples to back up his criticism. He talks of a “yawning credibility gap” between the administration and business and then resorts to vague claims that rhetorical attacks on the rich and Obama-created bureaucracy are stifling entrepreneurship:

The (credibility) gap is being aggravated by Mr Obama’s recent sharp turn to the left. This resort to divisive populism – laying the blame on “fat cats” and pillorying the president’s favourite villains – “millionaires and billionaires” – is exactly the wrong approach. It seeds the suspicion that the administration is more interested in campaigning and undermines the confidence that business needs if it is to invest in the face of new regulations, healthcare costs and an increased bureaucracy. Businesses sense that the administration no longer understands how this perceived hostility saps the animal spirits required for taking risks on expansions and start-ups.

Let’s weigh Zuckerman’s arguments against Obama’s actual policies. First, Obama continued the Bush crisis-fighting policy of bailing out and stabilizing the banking sector, effectively saving Wall Street from a complete disaster it created on its own. Then he went on to rescue the American automobile industry. On taxes? He continued the Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans over fierce opposition from his own party. Now he’s offering even more tax cuts. In his $447 billion jobs plan, Obama has recommended slicing the payroll tax paid by businesses. And on trade? Obama this week sent free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress for final approval, again over some opposition from his party. Any of these measures sound “anti-business” to you?

One Obama policy often attacked as “anti-business” is his healthcare reform. But one aim of the reform is to control escalating medical costs, which would boost the competitiveness of American businesses. Granted, Obama did increase regulation on the financial sector. But is this really “anti-business”? The goal is to prevent the sort of dangerous financial speculation that tanked Wall Street and created the Great Recession in the first place. A more stable, well-regulated financial system is good for American business, not “anti-business.”

In fact, the supposedly “pro-business” Republicans are the ones blocking Obama policies that could help business even more. Obama’s plans to improve American infrastructure, repeatedly rejected by the GOP, would give a boost to efficiency and bring down costs for American companies.

Yes, Obama has taken a turn towards populism is recent weeks, with, for example, his proposal for a “Buffett tax” on the wealthiest Americans. But is such a policy “anti-business”? Obama is simply trying to ensure that the process of fiscal retrenchment is fair and balanced. If the Republicans had their way, they’d dump all of the pain of budget cuts onto the middle class and poor – those who can least afford it. That’s not only morally reprehensible, it’s bad for business. The middle-class consumer is the backbone of the American economy. Hoisting an even greater burden onto these consumers, already weighed down by high debt and joblessness, would further dampen consumption and deprive corporate America of their own customers.

So why won’t American businessmen embrace the “pro-business” Obama? Criticizing government policy is an easy smokescreen to hide the real reason unemployment remains stubbornly high – corporate managers would rather boost productivity and fatten profits than expand and hire during a downturn. Zuckerman himself pointed this out:

Businesses are trying to enhance productivity, not create jobs. Polls show that business leaders are growing increasingly pessimistic. In the past six months a third of companies have delayed or cancelled plans for capital spending.

Based on Obama’s actual record, I’d agree with Timothy Egan in the New York Times, who once wrote: “For no matter your view of President Obama, he effectively saved capitalism.” People like Mort Zuckerman should be thanking Obama, not attacking him.