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Negotiations over fiscal cliff improve Obama-CEO relations

Thursday, November 22, 2012 - 4:00am

Fiscal cliff negotiations are proving to be the perfect excuse for President Obama and the business community to smooth over a rocky four years.

The White House has struggled to make and keep friends in the business community, thanks to contentious policy fights over financial and health care reforms. Obama famously dubbed Wall Street as "fat cat bankers" and bashed health insurers for raising premiums and denying coverage.

The tension grew worse during the election when business groups doubled down their contributions to defeat Obama. The financial sector spent more $50 million supporting the President's opponent Mitt Romney, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Thanks to a new crisis at hand -- the fiscal cliff -- there are some signs that the ice may be breaking. It helps that the White House and leaders of big businesses are united in their desire to avoid the fiscal cliff -- the Jan. 1 expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the Jan. 2 across-the-board spending cuts -- which economists fear will lead to an economic maelstrom.

Last week, the president reached out to several CEOs to shore up support for his position in averting the cliff, which includes tax hikes for the nation's wealthy. He invited 12 CEOs of large U.S. companies like General Electric, Xerox and Honeywell International for talks at the White House last week. Over the weekend he called another five CEOs including Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, according to CNN.

These talks could set the stage for a more congenial relationship in the next four years. Several business lobbying groups say they have not had a warm reception from the West Wing in the last four years.

Rob Nichols, president of the Financial Services Forum, a lobbying group for financial CEOs, said the fiscal cliff presents an "opportunity" for the business community and the White House to work together in a way that moves past the tension of the last four years.

The fiscal cliff has given CEOs plenty of opportunities lately to talk with top officials in the administration and Congress, said Matthew Miller, vice president at the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs of big business.

"We're in the time of decision making... we have to fix the fiscal cliff. I think you're going to see a ramped-up engagement," Miller said.

Over the weekend, President Obama reached out to several CEOs that have been friendly toward his campaign, including Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, as well as Craig Jelinek of Costco, whose founder endorsed Obama in the campaign, Jim McNerney of Boeing, who chairs Obama's Export Council, and Tim Cook of Apple, whose employees contributed some $270,000 to Obama's re-election.

A White House official told CNN that all the meetings are key to "continuing conversations and outreach on the need to find a balanced deficit reduction solution that protects the middle class and continues to move our economy forward."

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