December 12, 2019

Obama Meets C.E.O.’s as Fiscal Reckoning Nears

If Congress and the president cannot reach a deal to reduce the deficit by January, more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts will go into effect immediately — a prospect many chief executives and others warn could tip the economy back into recession.

Even so, Mr. Obama has some fence-mending to do before he can count on any serious backing from the business community.

“The president brought up that he hadn’t always had the best relationship with business, and he didn’t think he deserved that, but he understood that’s where things were and wanted it to be better,” said David M. Cote, chief executive of Honeywell. He was one of a dozen corporate leaders invited to meet Mr. Obama at the White House for 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon, after the president’s first news conference since the election.

While Mr. Obama did not present a detailed plan at Wednesday’s meeting or reveal what he would propose in terms of new corporate taxes, he strongly reiterated that he would not allow tax cuts for the middle class to expire. The president, according to attendees and aides, said he was committed to a balanced approach of reductions in entitlements and other government spending and increases in revenue.

With time running out, many people expect the president and Republican leaders in Congress to come up with a short-term compromise that prevents the full slate of tax increases and spending cuts from hitting in January. That would give both sides more time to come up with a far-reaching deal on entitlement spending, even as they work on a broad tax overhaul later next year.

One corporate official briefed on the meeting said that the chief executives came away with a sense that Mr. Obama was poised to present a more formal proposal in the next few days, but that he did not press them for support on particular policies. “It was more of a back and forth,” he said.

The chief executives from some of the country’s biggest and best-known companies, including Procter Gamble and I.B.M., were not unified on everything, according to one who was interviewed after the meeting.

Many of the executives who described the meeting would speak only on condition of anonymity.

The outreach to business comes as both the White House and corporate America maneuver ahead of the year-end deadline, as well as the beginning of Mr. Obama’s second term. Many executives were put off by what they saw as antibusiness rhetoric coming from the White House in his first term, and many also oppose tax increases on the rich that Mr. Obama favors but would hit them personally.

Both sides have plenty to gain from a better relationship. Business leaders want to buffer their image after the recession and the financial crisis, while Mr. Obama would gain valuable leverage if he could persuade even a few chief executives to come out in favor of higher taxes on people with incomes over $250,000.

Lloyd C. Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, publicly endorsed higher tax rates in an opinion article published in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

“I believe that tax increases, especially for the wealthiest, are appropriate, but only if they are joined by serious cuts in discretionary spending and entitlements,” he wrote.

While Mr. Blankfein and other Wall Street leaders have been speaking out about the dangers of the fiscal impasse, only one executive from the financial services industry, Kenneth I. Chenault of American Express, was at Wednesday’s meeting.

Afterward, the corporate leaders seemed pleased with the tone of the meeting but cautious about the prospect of finding common ground with the White House on the budget choices facing Congress and the president.

“I’d say everybody came away feeling pretty good about the whole discussion,” Mr. Cote said. “Now, all of us are C.E.O.’s, so we’ve learned not to confuse words with results. And that’s what we still need to see.”

Ursula M. Burns, chief executive of Xerox, who was also at the meeting, said afterward that it was clear that “we’re going to have to work through some sticking points.” But while “we didn’t get into too many specifics,” she said, it was also made clear that “we cannot go over the fiscal cliff.”

Ms. Burns’s comments about the potentially dire consequences of the fiscal impasse echoed those of other chief executives, including many in the Business Roundtable, which began an ad campaign Tuesday calling on lawmakers to resolve the issue quickly. The Campaign to Fix the Debt, a new group with a $40 million budget and the support of many Fortune 500 chiefs, began its own ad campaign on Monday.

Michael T. Duke, chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores, warned in a statement after the meeting that “before the end of the year, Washington needs to find an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff.” He said Walmart customers “are working hard to adapt to the ‘new normal,’ but their confidence is still very fragile. They are shopping for Christmas now, and they don’t need uncertainty over a tax increase.”


Helene Cooper reported from Washington and Nelson D. Schwartz from New York. Jackie Calmes contributed reporting from Washington.

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