President Obama walks to the White House after meeting with leaders of 20… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Hoping to mend fences with business leaders and spur more hiring, President Obama spent more than four hours with chief executives of 20 major companies in a "working meeting" that both sides said paved the way for better cooperation.
"We feel very confident we made some good progress," Obama told reporters as he walked back to the White House after the Wednesday meeting at nearby Blair House with the heads of such major companies as Boeing Co., Comcast Corp., General Electric Co. and Google Inc.
The session was another step in Obama's move toward the political center after big Republican gains in last month's mid-term elections. A year after referring to Wall Street executives as "fat-cat bankers," Obama is taking a less confrontational approach.
Administration officials have chafed at being labeled anti-business and have been trying to dispel that criticism. They initiated business-friendly moves in recent weeks, such as completing a trade pact with South Korea and making a deal with congressional Republican leaders to extend the Bush-era tax cuts and other tax breaks helpful to U.S. companies.
The Senate easily passed the tax-cut deal Wednesday. Obama called it "an essential ingredient in spurring economic growth over the short run."
Some executives said the tax-cut compromise set a good tone for the meeting and helped smooth over some hard feelings on both sides.
"We all wanted to move beyond the tone that created this confrontational environment," Boeing Chief Executive James McNerney told CNBC after the meeting. "We all made our apologies and we all said we're moving on."
Participants described the meeting as productive. They skipped a planned break and, at Obama's urging, decided to work through a buffet lunch of chicken, fish, pasta and salad, returning to a rectangular set of tables to continue their discussion.
High on Obama's list was finding a way to get corporations to start hiring by spending some of the record $1.9 trillion in cash they are holding.
"How do I get companies sitting around the table to start investing in job-creating enterprises?" Obama asked at one point, according to a participant.
The president said afterward: "We focused on jobs and investments, and they feel optimistic that by working together we can get some of that cash off the sidelines."
The group consisted of some strong Obama supporters — Google chief Eric Schmidt, Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr and Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker — along with such corporate leaders as John Chambers from Cisco, Jeffrey Immelt from GE, Indra Nooyi from PepsiCo Inc., Paul Otellini from Intel Corp. and Brian Roberts from Comcast.
Robert Wolf, president of financial services firm UBS, called it "a very constructive, positive meeting."
The talks focused on four major areas: fiscal responsibility and reform, including reducing the huge budget deficit; innovation and entrepreneurship; education and training, and growth in trade and exports through more corporate investment in the United States.
Obama asked for specific policy recommendations, and assigned groups will try to come up with ideas and report back in the next month or two.
John Lechleiter, CEO of drug maker Eli Lilly & Co., said Washington needed to create an environment that encouraged innovation.
"Ultimately, with public policies that provide the right environment, I'm convinced America can out-innovate anyone and create a new wave of good jobs right here at home," he said.
McNerney and D. Scott Davis, CEO of shipper United Parcel Service Inc., said their companies were adding jobs. And participants said there was a renewed commitment to making business and government work together.
"I think it was important on both sides to say, Look, whatever water's over the dam, it's over the dam," Dave Cote, CEO of Honeywell International Inc., told CNBC, noting the financial crisis was difficult on everybody.
Before the meeting, Obama said the conversation would be "one of many discussions we'll be having in the months ahead to find new ways to spur hiring, put Americans back to work and move our economy forward."
The White House said Obama would meet with labor leaders later this week. And Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who also attended Wednesday's meeting, planned to meet late in the day with leaders of labor, progressive and minority organizations to discuss the economy, taxes, the budget deficit and job creation.
Talking to reporters before the meeting, Obama touted the South Korea agreement and the tax-cut deal as good for the economy and repeated his belief that government is not "the primary engine of America's economic success.... It's the ingenuity of America's entrepreneurs."