How Obama Lost Small Business

Joel Kotkin
Editor of and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University

Cross posted at

Financial reform might irk Wall Street, but the president’s real
problem is with small businesses-the engine of any serious recovery.
Joel Kotkin on what he could have done differently.

The stock market, with some fits and starts, has surged since he’s
taken office. Wall Street grandees and the big banks have enjoyed
record profits. He’s pushed through a namby-pamby reform bill-which
even it’s authors acknowledge is "not perfect"-that is more a threat to
Main Street than the mega-banks. And yet why is Barack Obama losing the
business community, even among those who bankrolled his campaign?

Obama’s big problems with business did not start, and are not
deepest, among the corporate elite. Instead, the driver here has been
what you might call a bottom-up opposition. The business move against
Obama started not in the corporate suites, but among smaller
businesses. In the media, this opposition has been linked to Tea
Parties, led by people who in any case would have opposed any
Democratic administration. But the phenomenon is much broader than that.

The one group that has fared badly in the last two years has been
the private-sector middle class, particularly the roughly 25 million
small firms spread across the country. Their discontent-not that of the
loud-mouthed professional right or the spoiled sports on Wall Street-is
what should be keeping Obama and the Democrats awake at night.

Small business should be leading us out of the recession. In the
last two deep recessions during the early 1980s and the early 1990s,
small firms, particularly the mom and pop shops, helped drive the
recovery, adding jobs and starting companies. In contrast, this time
the formation rate for new firms has been dropping for months-one
reason why unemployment remains so high and new hiring remains insipid
at best.

Here’s one heat-check. A poll of small businesses by Citibank, released
in May, found that over three quarters of respondents described current
business conditions as "fair or poor." More than two in five said their
own business conditions had deteriorated over the past year. Only 17
percent said they expect to be hiring over the next year.

It’s not hard to see the reasons for pessimism. Entrepreneurs see
bailed-out Wall Street firms and big banks recovering, while getting
credit remains very difficult for the little guy. In addition, many
small businesses are terrified of new mandates, in energy or health,
which makes them reluctant to hire new people. Small banks-not
considered "too big to fail"-fear that they will prove far less capable
of meeting new regulatory guidelines than their leviathan competitors.

The small business owners I’ve spoken to-like most of the
public-generally don’t seem convinced about the effectiveness of the
stimulus, even if the administration claims it helped us avert an
economic "catastrophe." Barely one fourth of voters, according to a
recent Rasmussen poll, think it helped the economy.

Obama’s troubles with the bigger firms are more recent. Initially,
President Obama wowed the big rich, leading The New York Times to dub
him "the hedge fund candidate." By the time he won the election, he
enjoyed wide support from the Business Roundtable, the Silicon Valley
venture community and other titans.

Initially, big business was happy with Obama’s stimulus plan, and
more or less was ready to acquiesce to both his health-care reforms and
cap and trade. After all, most large companies generally provide some
health coverage to their employees. For Wall Street, cap and trade
represents just one more wonderful way to arbitrage their way to more

Of course, some corporate titans will remain loyal to the White
House. Take the lucky folks from Spanish- based Abengoa Solar, who are
now getting $1.45 billion in federal loan guarantees for an Arizona
solar plant that will create under 100 permanent jobs while providing
expensive, subsidized energy to perhaps 70,00 homes. If this is
stimulus, it’s less jarring than a decaf from Starbucks. Also let’s
dismiss those on Wall Street who whine about the administration’s
occasionally tough anti-business rhetoric. Wolves should have thicker
skins. The Obama administration and Congress have delivered softball
financial reform dressed up as major progressive change. They should be
grateful, not petulant.

But there’s clearly something more serious than hurt feelings at
play here. The pain felt by small businesses is hitting the big boys,
too. After three straight bad years, small businesses buy a lot less
stock, business services, and equipment. Big companies can hoard their
money and sport big profits, but ultimately they have to sell to
consumers and small firms. Maybe that’s something that the media
moguls-who after all have to sell to the hoi polloi-have been picking up on, too.

This has led some Obama allies, like GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, to grouse
that Obama does not like business, and vice versa. "Government and
entrepreneurs are not in sync," he explained
to reporters in Europe. So, too, has Ivan Seidenberg, the head of the
once Obama-friendly Business Roundtable, who denounced the
administration recently for creating "an increasingly hostile
environment for investment and job creation here in this country."

Among businesses of all sizes, there is now a pervasive sense that
the administration does not understand basic economics. This is not to
say they believe Obama’s a closet socialist, as some more unhinged
conservatives claim. That would be an insult to socialism. Obama’s real
problem is that he’s a product, basically, of the fantastical faculty

For the most part, university professors do not much value economic
growth, since they consider themselves, like government workers, a
protected class. Many, particularly in planning and environmental study
departments, also embrace the views of the president’s academic science
adviser, John Holdren, who suggests Western countries undergo
"de-development," which is the opposite of economic growth.

Of course, such ideas, if taken seriously, have economic
consequences. You want to see the future? Come to California, where the
regulatory stranglehold is killing our economy. Subsidizing favored
interests also is not a winning strategy. There’s simply not enough
money to maintain a federal version of Chicago-style baksheesh.
The parlous state of Obama’s home state of Illinois-which manages to
make even California or New York appear models of prudent
management-demonstrates the futility of the subsidize-the-base game.

The worst part is that none of this was necessary. A stimulus plan
that helped workers and communities by recreating a WPA for the
unemployed youths might have gained wide support on Main Street.
Credits for hiring, reductions in payroll taxes or a regulatory holiday
for small firms also might have bolstered business confidence. Business
people, particularly at the grassroots level, would also like to see a
return for the detested TARP in a freer flow of credit for their firms.
They are not so much hostile to Obama as puzzled by his inability to
address their needs.

But for now, the stimulus is widely seen as a wasted opportunity and
proof of Washington’s enduring incompetence. As a result, roughly 80
percent of Americans, according to Pew, say they don’t trust the
federal government to do the right thing, which does not bode well for
a second round of pump-priming.

This leaves business turning back to the Republicans. Not because
most see them as competent or even intelligent; GOP rankings are also
at a low ebb. Business owners across the spectrum are forced to embrace
the "party of no" because Obama and the Democrats have given them so
little to say "yes" to.

This article originally appeared in The Daily Beast.

Comment on this article

Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.