Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Is Obama Good for Business?

Is Obama Good for Business?

On Sunday, Feb. 10, after he found out he'd won that day's Democratic Presidential caucuses in Maine, but before his appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes, Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) sat down at the keyboard of his computer to write an e-mail. Not to a media consultant or a delegate counter, but to banker Robert Wolf, CEO of UBS Americas (UBS). The two men exchanged notes about the Senate-passed economic stimulus package and that weekend's G-7 economic summit, Wolf says.

A banker as Obama's pen pal? Hard to believe, given the senator's liberal image. But in between rallies and airplane flights on the campaign trail, Obama has also taken time to consult on the economy with billionaire Warren Buffett, whose support of rolling back the Bush tax cuts Obama often cites in his stump speeches. Obama has also been in touch with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who endorsed the freshman senator in January. "When I sat down with him, I found him to be unbelievably refreshing and smart and thoughtful," says Wolf, who first met Obama at the offices of financier George Soros. The UBS chief has gone on to raise more than $1 million for the Obama campaign.

The rest of Corporate America may not be persuaded as easily. After all, Obama is hardly a shoo-in for the C-suite set: He's got a scant three-year record on the national stage, and he wants to roll back the Bush tax cuts that benefit many of the people running big American companies. Plus, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gives him the lowest rating of any of the three major contenders for the Presidency, behind Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). But Obama's sweep of the Feb. 12 "Potomac Primary" in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia makes him a very real contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Economic Agenda

So what would an Obama Presidency look like for business? "It would be a pragmatic, center-left administration," says Democratic political strategist Steve McMahon, who is unaligned with a Presidential candidate this year. "He's been pretty clear that business would have a seat at the table, but business wouldn't be able to buy all the chairs."

Obama's record in the Senate is thin, but it does hold some indicators of where he might go as President. Obama has sponsored bills backing a host of traditional Democratic causes, from union labor to alternative fuel to the earned income tax credit. In one move that was unpopular among business executives, Obama sponsored a bill to give shareholders a nonbinding proxy vote on executive pay. Obama voted for a free-trade pact with Peru that contained provisos to protect the Peruvian environment and Peruvian labor. That's popular stuff with the American left, but hard to take if you're a U.S. business owner who wants costs to stay low in your new Peru operation. And in a reflection of the Democratic Party's drift away from pure free-trade positions, Obama says he would look to amend the NAFTA trade agreement to add similar protections to the Clinton-era pact.

After a tour of the Janesville (Wis.) General Motors Assembly Plant on Feb. 13, Obama plans to make a major speech laying out an economic agenda for the rest of the campaign, including details of his plan to restore "balance" to the economy and create millions of new jobs. Wisconsin holds its primary on Feb. 19.

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