President Obama's Challenge to Business: "It's Time to Invest in America"

Even if it took a "shellacking" in the mid-term elections to serve as a wake-up call, President Obama clearly understands that America needs to invest at home in order to win the competitive race for jobs and investment.
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Last August I wrote a column for the New York Times urging President Obama to make concrete moves to "invest in America." On Monday the President went to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- his nemesis the past two years -- offering to partner with business to get the U.S. economy rolling, saying, "Now is the time to invest in America." He urged business leaders to work with his administration to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build our competitors." The President said he would go "anywhere, anytime to help American business."

Cynics might say that these are just words from an eloquent President. Actually, the business community hasn't heard anything close to these words in the last two years; instead, it has been blamed for America's ills of income disparities, corporate greed and excessive profits.

In the past six weeks, the President has not only changed his tune, but is backing up his music with concrete actions. For example:

  • Negotiating the Recovery Act that continues the Bush tax cuts for two years;
  • Providing100% depreciation on capital investments in 2011;
  • Making R&D tax credits larger and permanent;
  • Breaking down regulatory barriers by eliminating onerous regulations;
  • Expanding exports and free trade via agreements with India, China and South Korea, and negotiating treaties with Columbia and Panama;
  • Upgrading transportation and IT infrastructures;
  • Encouraging American innovation by expanding investment in basic research;
  • Investing in training skilled workers by increasing math and science education;
  • Freezing domestic government spending;
  • Proposing to reduce corporate income taxes and eliminate loopholes.

In addition, the President has made dramatic changes in the people advising him to include more "business-friendly" faces, such as:

  • Businessman Bill Daley as chief of staff and Gene Sperling as chief economic advisor;
  • GE's Jeff Immelt to head President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness
  • Steve Case, founder of AOL to head Start-Up America, designed to use public-private partnerships to stimulate new company formation;
  • Boeing's Jim McNerney and Xerox' Ursula Burns to co-chair export council.

These aren't just words. They are concrete actions. Of course, we need to see results from them, but they are clearly a move in the right direction. Taken as a whole, they represent a very impressive package.

Some people are asking, "Is this just good politics, or has the President changed his beliefs about business?" I prefer to believe the President is growing in his appreciation for the private sector and its capacity to create jobs and build successful businesses that pay taxes. He may even recognize that he was led astray by his former advisors who urged him to increase federal spending to stimulate growth and jobs. Learning that it didn't work, the President has not only changed advisors but turned to the business community to invest to make American businesses stronger on a global scale and to create sustainable jobs.

Echoing the famous words of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, the President challenged business leaders, "Winning the future is not just about what the government can do to help you succeed. It's about what you can do to help America succeed."

I agree with this notion. President Obama has symbolically offered business an olive branch by going to the Chamber to make his appeal. It's time for business to meet him (at least) halfway by investing in America to create innovative products and services, highly efficient manufacturing facilities, energy and efficiency savings, and sustainable jobs. It will be difficult for American companies to establish themselves as global leaders unless they have healthy markets here at home into which to sell.

Even if it took a "shellacking" in the mid-term elections to serve as a wake-up call, President Obama clearly understands that America needs to invest at home in order to compete with China, India and all the other rising nations to create world-class companies and to win the competitive race for jobs and investment.

Enlightened leaders will seize this opportunity as a "win-win" solution to facing global challenges. The time is now for American business to invest in America to make this country more competitive on a global scale.

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