By: Josh Gerstein
President Barack Obama’s Jobs Council hasn’t met publicly for six months, even as the issue of job creation dominates the 2012 election.
At this point, the hiatus — which reached the half-year mark Tuesday — might be less awkward than an official meeting, given the hornet’s nest of issues that could sting Obama and the council members if the private-sector panel gets together.
For starters, there’s the discomfort many business leaders may feel in appearing to embrace the president with his reelection bid in full swing.
Then, there’s the fact that some members of the commission have conspicuously declined to endorse him. And that Obama has conspicuously declined to endorse some of their recommendations. And that some of what Obama won’t endorse has been warmly embraced by Republicans, including likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
To cap it all off, several of the companies whose CEOs serve on the panel are involved to some extent in outsourcing — a fact that could undercut the ferocious attack Obama and his campaign are mounting on Romney over his alleged ties to the practice.
One former administration official said the current political atmosphere could be prompting the CEOs and other business leaders to lie low.
“The thing is supposed to be bipartisan, so a lot of times they don’t want to get into things that could be used by either side in the election,” said the former aide, who asked not to be named. “The businesspeople, for the most part, don’t want to get into the middle of political fighting.”
The last official meeting of the 26-member President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness took place Jan. 17 in the White House complex. Obama and a slew of other administration officials attended, including his then chief of staff, Bill Daley.
Obama named General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head the panel in January of last year as the president tried to mend his frayed relationship with the business community and highlight his commitment to job creation. Part of the council’s political value was to show Obama working closely with top business leaders on behalf of the American people. But the White House insisted that the council’s recommendations would lead to real action.
The panel held three “quarterly” sessions last year with Obama: in February, June and October.
“This has not been a show council. This has been a work council,” Obama declared during the January 2012 session, where the panel presented a report containing more than 60 recommendations aimed at stimulating job creation.
“I have been tracking implementation of your recommendations. And we’ve seen substantial progress across the board,” Obama added. “Hopefully, we’ve at least met your expectations in follow-through and implementation; what we haven’t seen is a bunch of white paper sitting on a shelf somewhere collecting dust.”
But the January meeting also exposed tensions.
Moments before Obama arrived, one of the board’s two labor leaders, Joseph Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, publicly abstained from the tax recommendations in the report. The other labor representative, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, skipped the meeting and issued a scathing three-page dissent.
“I disagree that reforming our regulatory system and reducing the statutory corporate tax rate are crucial elements of ‘competitiveness’ for the United States going forward, nor does empirical evidence support the claim that significant net new job creation would result from such ‘reforms,’” Trumka wrote.
In what could be viewed as criticism of the White House, Trumka suggested the makeup of the panel was too skewed in favor of business to make balanced suggestions on regulatory, tax and energy policy.
The labor leaders have also squared off with some of their colleagues on the panel over how their firms treat workers. One board member, Penny Pritzker, has been a particular target in a heated dispute between the Hyatt hotel chain her family runs and a union representing hotel maids. Those tensions may have led Pritzker, a key Obama fundraiser in 2008, to lower her profile in his 2012 campaign, The New York Times reported Sunday.
One sign of the continuing potential for awkwardness came Monday at a campaign stop in Cincinnati at which Obama denounced Romney’s proposal for a so-called territorial tax system. That proposal, to limit U.S. taxes on American multinational companies to their profits inside the U.S., was also endorsed by Obama’s Jobs Council — but rejected by the president.
"Gov. Romney’s economic plan would, in fact, create 800,000 jobs. There’s only one problem: The jobs wouldn’t be in America. … They’d be in other countries,” Obama said, pointing to a recent study by the nonprofit journal Tax Notes. “By eliminating taxes on corporations’ foreign income, Gov. Romney’s plan would actually encourage companies to shift more of their operations to foreign tax havens, creating 800,000 jobs in those other countries.”
A spokeswoman for Romney’s campaign, Andrea Saul, criticized Obama for failing to meet more regularly with the CEOs on his Jobs Council.
“With a half-million jobs lost since President Obama took office, he would be well served to spend more time listening to job creators about what it’s going to take to get the American economy growing again,” Saul said Tuesday in response to a query from POLITICO. “Instead, he’s spent the last two weeks talking about raising taxes on job creation and attacking a central recommendation of his Jobs Council for fundamental tax reform of the kind Gov. Romney has proposed.”
During the January council meeting, Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Jeff Zients said the administration was making good progress in implementing many of 52 recommendations the panel put forward last year.
“But for your help and pushing, we would not be at the point that we’re at, which is I think we’ve gotten a lot done. And we’ve got, a busy, busy six months ahead,” said Zients, who’s now acting director of OMB.
Officials there did not respond to a request to interview Zients or for a tally of how many of the council’s recommendations have been implemented. However, White House and OMB officials sent POLITICO “highlights” of the administration’s work to carry out the proposals.
The list includes regulatory initiatives such as “look back” reviews of existing federal regulations, energy initiatives such as $4 billion in energy-efficiency upgrades to public and private sector buildings, and trade and tourism initiatives dramatically reducing wait times for U.S. visas in countries such as Brazil and China.
Just last week, the White House announced a half-dozen small-business-related initiatives the council backed, including an effort to speed money to subcontractors on federal projects. But Republicans said the administration was simply re-announcing things it already had committed to.
Despite the long list of recommendations, some economic measures the president has aggressively advocated, like his Jobs Bill, were never brought to a vote before the jobs panel.
Asked about the lack of a public council meeting since January, the White House argued that the council’s work goes beyond its formal meetings.
“The Council has conducted 18 Listening and Action Sessions in communities around the country with businesses and local leaders,” said a White House official, who declined to be named. “The Council has plans for another half dozen Listening and Action Sessions in the coming months to continue to collect good ideas that have the potential for job creation and long-term competitiveness, with additional sessions potentially being added as well.”
Yet only three of the completed listening and action sessions took place this year, according to the council’s website. The White House aide also pointed to six other outreach events. However, none were meetings of the full board: They were attended by two or fewer council members. And at one session, the only council participant identified on the press release was Don Graves, the Treasury Department official who serves as the panel’s executive director.
Even without a public meeting, the council has generated some awkward press for Obama. Last week, as his campaign stepped up its attack on Romney for allegedly outsourcing American jobs, The Huffington Post noted that several major companies whose executives serve on the council outsource products from China or other countries.
“Just because a company is on the Council doesn’t mean that we endorse its specific business decisions,” White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said in response to the report.
There are other headaches as well.
Another executive on the council, Robert Wolf of UBS, works for a Swiss bank, reported by the Times’s Dealbook blog to be the next target of a Justice Department probe into the alleged manipulation of benchmark interest rates for mortgages and other loans. Wolf has also been pressured by other UBS executives to limit his appearances with Obama, the blog reported last month.
The seeming slowdown in Jobs Council activities may be partly due to the departure of two key staffers, Greg Nelson and John Oxtoby. The pair served as “the logistics backbone” of the council’s work, a former colleague said.
Nelson began work a couple of months ago as chief of staff to Gene Sperling, chairman of the National Economic Council, a White House official confirmed.
Oxtoby recently left the White House to attend Harvard Business School, the ex-colleague said. According to his LinkedIn page, he is presently a business development manager with Intel in China.
The portion of the White House website devoted to the Jobs Council shows its last meeting as October and lists Oxtoby and Nelson as still on board. What appears to be the council’s primary website, www.jobs-council.com, is run by General Electric, whose CEO, Immelt, serves as the panel’s chairman. Clicking on the site’s “contact” link directs a visitor to GE’s media relations department, which did not respond to a phone message and e-mail seeking comment for this story.
Under rules governing federal advisory boards, the Jobs Council is required to announce its meetings 15 days in advance. With no such announcement out right now, it appears the panel won’t convene this month.
Gathering a score of corporate CEOs in the vacation-heavy month of August also seems doubtful, pushing the next window for a council meeting into September or October, just as the reelection campaign reaches its peak.
Paul Volcker, the former federal reserve chairman who headed up the Jobs Council’s predecessor, the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, indicated Tuesday he was not aware that the new panel has not convened publicly in half a year.
Volcker said his experience was that the agility of such boards is hampered by the rules governing their operation.
“That was certainly true,” Volcker told POLITICO after an event Tuesday highlighting the fiscal plight of state governments. “The restrictions on the way in which a board like that operates makes it very difficult to give informal advice.”