The U.S. Chamber of Commerce held a summit Wednesday to highlight its views on creating jobs and challenge Obama administration policies it believes have allowed the country's employment rate to stagnate.
"For the first time in my 40 years of observation, I truly think our free enterprise system is at risk," said Tom Bell, chairman of the Chamber's board of directors, opening the summit. "If you hear the conversations in Washington and read the popular press, everyone seems to see earning profit and creating wealth not as the heart and soul of our economy, but as a nefarious activity that works to the detriment of our society."
As members of Congress, administration staffers and students gathered at the Chamber's headquarters, the White House was waging a counteroffensive. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett released an open letter
responding to the Chamber's attacks on administration policies.
"The stakes are far too high for us to be working against one another," Emanuel and Jarrett wrote. "We were surprised and disappointed at the rhetoric we have heard from the business community -- rhetoric that fails to acknowledge the steps this administration has taken every single day to meet our shared objectives."
Meanwhile, President Obama was holding a private meeting
with billionaire Warren Buffet to discuss the administration's attempts to spur the U.S. economy
into recovery and reduce unemployment. The administration also released a report
estimating that its $826 billion stimulus bill, which the Chamber supported, had created between 2.5 and 3.6 million jobs.
But the Chamber argued that the country needs 20 million new jobs over the next decade, and painted that as a bleak prospect under the Obama administration. Chamber officials decried Congress' health care overhaul, new regulation of Wall Street, and the cap-and-trade bill that the House passed in June 2009.
"All of this has injected tremendous uncertainty into our economy," Thomas Donohue, the Chamber's CEO, said in his keynote address. "Uncertainty is the enemy of investment, growth and jobs. Banks, investors, and companies ... are worried. They don't know what is going to hit them next."
Donohue said large corporations are sitting on capital, afraid to hire because they are unsure about how much new regulations will cost them, though he repeatedly refused to characterize the president as anti-business.
"My job is not to run around and agree with him, and his job is not to run around and agree with me," Donohue told the Financial Times
. "Our job is to advance what we think is the best thing for the American business community and for America and to do it in a way that is constructive and polite."
But speaker after speaker at Wednesday's event blamed what they see as the country's bleak economic future on Obama and the Democratic Congress. Donohue slammed the "suffocating regulations" that have come out of Congress in the past 18 months, and Bell said the president is leading the United States on a path to "becoming the next Greece."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who appeared on a panel at the summit, said she and her Democratic colleagues make "no apologies" for increasing government spending during extraordinary economic times. "There's nothing usual about this," she said. Landrieu recommended that Congress put "all options on the table" for dealing with the national debt, and rebuked Republicans for excluding tax increases and cuts in defense spending from the discussion.
Heather Bousey, an economist at the Center for American Progress, said that the Chamber is getting ahead of itself by worrying about the deficit before the unemployment problem has been solved. "You don't start talking to somebody about their weight problem when they're suffering from a heart attack right now," Bousey said. "We'll need to talk about it down the road, for sure, but we have to get the unemployment rate down right now. That's your first and profoundly fundamental problem."
Bousey argued that benefits for the unemployed receive the "biggest bang for the government's buck" because small business owners are more worried about a lack of customers than they are about federal regulation. "The long-term unemployed have gone through their savings, and they have no money to spend," Bouey said. "That's the one thing the government can do that none of us can do, and small businesses can't do, even if their taxes and regulation are at zero."
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who also appeared on the Chamber's panel and has urged his colleagues
to stop extending emergency unemployment benefits, said the administration and congressional Democrats are turning the United States into a "European welfare state model" by expanding health care coverage and assisting the unemployed. Landrieu argued that, on the contrary, the president made an "honest effort" to contain "runaway, unsustainable costs" in American health care by championing aggressive reform.