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A strange meeting at the White House
On Wednesday, according to the official White House schedule, President Biden met "with private sector CEOs to discuss the ways his Build Back Better [(BBB)] agenda will grow the economy and make the U.S. more competitive, increase worker productivity and workforce participation, lower inflation over the long-term, and support business growth."
The group of ten executives included GM CEO Mary Barra, Ford CEO Jim Farley, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. The White House told CNBC that "[a]ll the executives attending the meeting support passing the Build Back Better Act." The BBB proposal would make generational investments in education, childcare, clean energy, and the climate — paid for, in part, by an increase in corporate taxes.
In his introductory remarks, Biden ticked through the benefits of BBB and said he was "grateful for the support of the CEOs that are here." Then he gave a few of the CEOs an opportunity to speak.
First up was Tom Linebarger, the CEO of Cummins, which manufactures engines and power generation products. Linebarger said that "climate change is the existential challenge of our time" and he would not want to tell his kids and grandkids that he failed to make "every effort I could to address it." Lineberger praised the "tax credits in the Build Back Better Act" that supported clean energy.
CBS reported that the "CEOs and the White House share a keen interest in long-term investments in children — the Build Back Better legislation [includes] an extension of the child tax credit, free universal preschool and provisions to help parents with child care." But when Biden followed up and asked Linebarger to talk about how the childcare provisions would be important for his business, Linebarger demurred. He thanked Biden for prioritizing the climate. When Biden pressed again, Linebarger said that childcare was an important issue for his employees, without endorsing any of BBB's childcare policies.
Next up was Microsoft President Brad Smith, who did more of what Biden was looking for, endorsing not only the climate provisions but also provisions of BBB related to childcare and education. "We need to do more to help bring Americans back to work," Smith said. "People can only come back to work if they have a way to take care of their children."
The last CEO to speak in the portion of the meeting open to the press was Barra, who was much more circumspect. Barra said she was attending to "speak about climate change and our aligned goal as it relates to converting to an all-electric future." She said that she looked forward "to working with you and Congress" on tax credits for EV vehicles. She also encouraged Biden to back a proposal that would devote $52 billion to improving the domestic supply chain for semiconductors, calling it a "national imperative." That proposal is not currently part of BBB. She pointedly did not discuss any other aspect of BBB, and Biden did not ask.
What Barra also didn't mention is that she is the chair of the Business Roundtable, a corporate lobbying group that has spent millions opposing BBB. Linebarger is a member of the Business Roundtable and a former board member. Smith, who was the only non-CEO in attendance, is not a member of the Business Roundtable. He was also the only person in attendance other than Biden to actively embrace the non-climate provisions of BBB.
Do Barra and the other CEOs now support BBB? Has the Business Roundtable decided to drop its opposition to Biden's agenda? Popular Information's inquiries to GM and the Business Roundtable were not returned.
The Business Roundtable's campaign to kill BBB
The Business Roundtable did not seek to work with the White House or Congress to make BBB more business-friendly. Instead, it launched a public campaign to kill the bill, arguing it would be catastrophic for the American economy.
While Barra became chair of the Business Roundtable on January 1, 2022, she has been a member of its leadership for years. And the campaign has continued after Barra assumed her new position.
When the White House released a framework for BBB in October 2021, the Business Roundtable released a statement claiming it "would seriously undermine U.S. growth, competitiveness and jobs and make it harder for companies to invest in innovation and workers." When the House passed BBB in November 2021, the Business Roundtable released a statement saying it was "disappointed that the House of Representatives voted in favor of one of the largest tax increases in history on American job creators" and that the legislation would "erode America’s competitive standing and favor foreign competitors over American businesses and workers."
The Business Roundtable's opposition extended far beyond press releases. The organization spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads designed to create "grassroots" opposition to BBB.
One such ad that ran in December, targeting West Virginia voters and asking them to "contact congress" and "tell them to say no to tax increases and protect West Virginia jobs." Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has been one of two Democratic Senators standing in the way of Senate passage.
The Business Roundtable also created a television advertisement casting BBB as a gift to America's foreign rivals. It aired on cable television in October and November and was also promoted extensively online.
The Business Roundtable has given no indication that it has changed its position on BBB. The organization has tweeted about its opposition to BBB as recently as a week ago:
Barra did not explain how she could lead an organization adamantly opposed to the BBB while publicly emphasizing her support.
Why the White House is playing along
It's clear why CEOs like Barra would attend a White House meeting. They want to appear dedicated to tackling climate change and other important issues. They don't want the reputation for undermining popular policies.
But why would the White House invite CEOs that have relentlessly attacked the President's agenda and present them as supporters and partners? In part to generate headlines like this:
This gives Biden's agenda the appearance of momentum. But, if these CEOs don't actually support his agenda, is this a smart strategy? One of the reasons why BBB has stalled is the aggressive opposition by corporate lobbying organizations that represent the CEOs that were in the room today with Biden.
The public deserves to know the truth.