The Muezzin of Pennsylvania Avenue sang in his semi-mellifluous voice. American business leaders answered his call to prayers and bowed to the god of pragmatism.
Like British playwright Terence Rattigan’s infuriatingly unpublished play, Follow My Leader (1940), a satiric attack on Nazi Germany, the true substance of President Barack Obama’s December 15th meeting with twenty American business leaders at Blair House in Washington must remain unknown to most Americans. Aside from what has been reported in newspapers that certain topics were discussed and that attendees “felt good” about the gathering, no one knows what Obama said to these individuals that mattered, or what they said to him. What was the nature of those discussions? Was it an invitation to attend this meeting, or a command? Or do Obama and the attendees treat the terms as synonymous?
The Washington Post reported some significant absentees, major bank executives, with the exception of Robert Wolf, president of the financial services firm UBS. This is the company that cooperated with the Internal Revenue Service to uncover the identities and assets of some 15,000 secret account holders who thought their money was safe from government confiscation.
No major U.S. bank executives came, even though the financial industry has had an especially rocky relationship with the White House after the passage of financial overhaul legislation and the president’s criticism of “fat cat” bankers. The administration has tried to build a rapport with executives such as Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, neither of whom attended the meeting.
Also missing was Ivan Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon, who delivered a stinging speech in June, saying the president’s policies hurt economic growth. Seidenberg, who is also chairman of the Business Roundtable, presented a “road map” last week of policies supported by the business community relating to taxes, trade and energy.
Also missing was someone with the capacity for “spontaneous” anger of South Carolina representative Joe Wilson. I am betting that no one at this prayer meeting had the chutzpah to reply to the muezzin, “You lie!”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Wolf said afterward that it was “a very constructive, positive meeting.” Which means nothing. “Constructive,” in what sense? “Positive,” how? You fill in the blanks. Many of the attendees were ardent Obamites.
The group consisted of some strong Obama supporters — Google chief Eric Schmidt, Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr and Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker — along with such corporate leaders as John Chambers from Cisco, Jeffrey Immelt from GE, Indra Nooyi from PepsiCo Inc., Paul Otellini from Intel Corp. and Brian Roberts from Comcast.
Unless someone releases a transcript of who said what during the meeting, the country must be satisfied with the unfounded assumption that the participants, including the White House, were not discussing how better to further nationalize the economy. The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon wrote:
In a session with 20 chief executives…Obama – whose sharp rhetoric about pay on Wall Street has annoyed some executives – declared, “I want to dispel any notion we want to inhibit your success,” according to a source in the room.
Also in attendance at prayers were executives from Honeywell International, United Parcel Service, Eli Lily & Co., Boeing, Comcast, Motorola, Centerbridge Partners, and American Express. Prayer, after all, is nothing more than earnest wishful thinking with a dash of hope, of blanking out reality and squeezing one’s eyes shut, thinking, “Please, let it be! (or not).”
Dana Milbank, a regular columnist for The Washington Post, let the cat out of the bag with the title of his December 15th column, “The socialist president plays host to capitalism.” Writing with an obvious bitter sarcasm directed at Obama, Milbank ascribes the appellation “socialist” to “many Republicans,” but it is an honest appraisal of Obama’s ideological identity and a confession of Milbank’s political persuasion. He, too, wondered what was actually said during the meeting by all the parties.
Whatever Obama said privately to the executives over the next four-plus hours, they must have liked it. When they emerged from Blair House, several of them stopped at the microphones to welcome the president into the club of capitalists. “I think they have a lot of business acumen in the White House,” judged UBS’s Robert Wolf, an Obama golfing partner.
That was worse than saying nothing. “They” in the White House have the business acumen of Bernie Madoff, now serving a life sentence at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex near Raleigh, North Carolina for his multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. If that is Wolf’s honest assessment of the Obama administration’s notion of business, it would be advisable to avoid doing business with UBS.
The Blair House meeting is just the latest in a succession of meetings between Obama and business leaders to ease tensions between him and the leaders of our alleged free market system. This one was supposed to help patch things up in the aftermath of the midterm elections. Aside from saying prayers and speaking in tongues (to the press and the public), the business leaders also performed ablutions.
Jim McNerney, president and chief executive of Boeing, said after the meeting, “We have a chance for a new beginning.” McNerney later told CNBC: “We all made our apologies and said we wanted to move on.”
To what? The president gave little indication.
President Barack Obama said he and 20 company executives made “good progress” during a four and a half hour meeting toward establishing closer cooperation between government and business to accelerate the U.S. economic recovery. “We focused on jobs and investment, and they feel optimistic that by working together we can get some of that cash off the sidelines,” Obama said as he left the session yesterday, referring to the almost $2 trillion that he said companies have amassed.
Cooperation and collaboration to accomplish what? Since when do corporate executives seek the advice of the government on how to invest their companies’ money? One supposes the answer is when private individuals regard the government as the lodestone of their purposes. Since when do presidents feel they have the right to advise private individuals on how to conduct their business? When those individuals grant him the sanction to “guide” them.
Honeywell chairman David Cote said, after the meeting,
Executives at the meeting agreed with the president’s assessment that the two sides made progress. “It’s important for business and government to be able to work together,” Cote said. “I came away feeling very good.”
What can explain this secular version of Islamic submission to the American version of Louis IV, the Sun King? Gerald F. Seib wrote about a similar “rapprochement” between the White House and business last February, in The Wall Street Journal. Commenting on the ablutions performed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after its previous harsh criticisms of White House economic and social policies, he noted that Obama’s signals of reconciliation were merely rhetorical.
The president who somewhat famously told Republicans earlier in the week, “I am not an ideologue,” told his party’s senators they shouldn’t be ideologues either. “We’ve got to be nonideological about our approach to these things. We’ve got to make sure that our party understands that, like it or not, we have to have a financial system that is healthy and functioning, so we can’t be demonizing every bank out there,” Mr. Obama said.
One would be right to feel a sense of déjà vu, when, on December 7th, he replied to liberal and Democratic critics who upbraided him for “compromising” over extending the Bush tax cuts for two years.
Obama’s tone was alternately defensive and fiery. He dismissed his Democratic critics as “sanctimonious” and obsessed with staking out a “purist position.” He said they hold views so unrealistic that, by their measure of success, “we will never get anything done.”
And what is the difference between an ideologue and an ideological purist? Not a whit.
Clearly, the business leaders who answered the call to prayers are “non-ideological” pragmatists, empty vessels – many of them, except for those committed to the White House agenda. It is their muezzin who, contrary to his assertions notwithstanding, is the purist and ideologue. And yet, critics and congratulators are proclaiming that he is now a “centrist.”
The centrist label is wholly unjustified, warned Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist who has so often and accurately kenned Obama’s soul, style, and savvy. In his December 17th column, “The new comeback kid,” he notes:
…[S]ome on the right are gloating that Obama had been maneuvered into forfeiting his liberal base. Nonsense. He will never lose his base. Where do they go? Liberals will never have a president as ideologically kindred – and they know it. For the left, Obama is as good as it gets in a country that is barely 20 percent liberal. The conservative gloaters were simply fooled again by the flapping and squawking that liberals ritually engage in before folding at Obama’s feet.
American business leaders, most of them, will continue to follow their leader, together with their enemies, the liberals and the left. From this point on, on up through the presidential race of 2012, there will be many more calls to prayer from Pennsylvania Avenue.