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U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Thomas Donohue upbeat on outlook for business

Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, expresses optimism over the direction of the economy and President Obama's recent approach toward business.

January 12, 2011|By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, although a major critic of the Obama administration, was nevertheless optimistic about the direction of the economy and the White House's recent approach to the business community.

But Thomas Donohue warned that Washington must do more to expand trade, cut the deficit and reduce regulations — including repealing the controversial healthcare overhaul.

"The state of American business is improving," the chamber's president said in his annual speech Tuesday. "Last year, we worried about a double-dip recession. Today, we are cautiously optimistic that the recovery will continue and pick up steam as the year progresses."

The chamber, the nation's largest business organization, predicted that the economy would expand 3.2% in 2011 and create about 2.5 million jobs.

But such job growth would reduce the current 9.4% unemployment rate only by 1 percentage point, highlighting the need for more pro-business policies "to turn an economic recovery into a jobs recovery," Donohue said.

To do that, he said, Congress must scale back the healthcare and financial regulatory overhauls that lawmakers passed last year. Both major White House priorities have created uncertainty among businesses about what regulations might be coming, making them hesitant to use record corporate profits to hire workers, he said.

"We cannot allow this nation to move from a government of the people to a government of the regulators," Donohue said in attacking his two favorite targets.

The chamber supports the attempt by House Republican leaders to repeal the healthcare law, even though the group doesn't expect the effort to get past opposition by Democratic Senate leaders and the White House. The chamber also would like to see the process of writing hundreds of new financial rules slowed down.

The chamber led the charge against healthcare and financial reform, drawing the ire of administration officials and their allies in Congress. The group was a major factor in helping Republicans win big in November's congressional elections, spending millions of dollars to help mostly GOP candidates.

But since the election, President Obama has tried to tone down his often-sharp rhetoric about the role of Wall Street and big corporations in the financial crisis and the sluggish recovery. He made a business-friendly move last week in naming JPMorgan Chase & Co. executive William Daley, a former Commerce secretary, as his chief of staff.

Obama also accepted an invitation to give a speech to the chamber next month as both sides try to mend relations.

"It's never been personal with us," Donohue told reporters after his Tuesday speech, noting that the chamber also supported many administration initiatives, including the $814-billion stimulus package in 2009.

Donohue said the "new tone coming out of the White House," along with progress on a trade deal with South Korea and the temporary extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, has helped address some of the immediate concerns of U.S. businesses.

But he said more aggressive efforts were necessary by the White House and Congress, such as more spending to improve the nation's highways and airports to facilitate the flow of goods.

The chamber is willing to work with both parties, Donohue said in dismissing suggestions that his organization will simply be an ally of the Republican House majority it helped elect.

But he warned anyone taking on the powerful organization: "We will not allow the business community to be intimidated and we will use every tool at our disposal to challenge those who try to silence our voice."

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