The White House is distancing itself from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meeting directly with CEOs of major American companies, more often than with the lobbying group that has long-represented business interests, several media reports said Monday.
President Obama's administration enjoyed the support of the U.S. Chamber early on, when the organization rushed to embrace his economic stimulus plans last winter. Recently, however, there has been a significant chill in relations: Since June, senior White House officials, sometimes including Obama himself, have met with executives from more than 55 companies -- including Eastern Kodak, Kraft and Amazon.com last week -- while criticizing the Chamber for ad buys supporting "free enterprise" after their support of government bailouts of companies.
“We prefer the approach — particularly in this climate — where the actual people who are on the front lines, running businesses, trying to create jobs, come and advise us on policy,” senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said in an interview for a POLITICO article entitled "White House plan: Neuter the Chamber."
The Huffington Post's Sam Stein notes that the Chamber's $100 million "free enterprise" ad campaign, which chamber leaders say is being used to create jobs, is also aimed at killing regulatory reform.
Obama recently criticized the ad buy, saying "You might have seen some of these ads — the ones that claim local butchers and other small businesses will somehow be harmed by this agency. This is, of course, completely false — and we’ve made clear that only businesses that offer financial services would be affected by this agency."
"I don't know how many of your butchers are offering financial services," Obama joked.
Jarrett told the Huffington Post: "We were hoping to have a constructive dialogue with the Chamber and it is regrettable that they decided to spend a huge amount of money launching this campaign."
Chamber leaders, however, believe the White House is trying to divide the business community to advance their positions on things like health care reform and climate change legislation.
"If they are trying to do things constructively, than why don't they reach out to the many, many organizations in this town instead of to small groups of very prominent CEOs, who, interestingly, they vilify regularly," Josten told Huffington Post. "I can't believe, for instance, that they get better feedback on trade. I doubt there are any groups they have spoken to that are telling the administration to do what it is doing..."
The U.S. Chamber boasts a membership of 3 million. Mother Jones magazine recently reported its membership hovers closer to 200,000. But even some long-time Chamber members themselves have been wary of the group's positions on high-profile issues like health care reform and climate change bills. Wal-Mart executives do not agree with the group's opposition to including a public option in health care reform legislation.
Numerous high-profile Chamber members, including Apple, cut ties with the group recently because of its stance on climate change legislation. Nike also abandoned its position on the Chamber's board, but remains a member of the Chamber itself, because of concerns about the group's climate change positions. The Chamber opposes Environmental Protection Agency efforts to regulate carbon through the use of the Clean Air Act.
White House officials say they are still open to meeting with Chamber representatives whenever they request a meeting, and point out they have sat down with the Chamber multiple times over the past few months.
Jarrett, however, doesn't mind capitalizing on the Chamber's membership woes.
“We’re seeing very prominent members resigning from the Chamber, so our question is, ‘Well, then does it still represent the community’s interests?’” she said to Politico.