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Looming 'fiscal cliff' bringing Wall Street, Obama back together

Imminent spending cuts and tax hikes are the subject. Some worry that Congress won't strike a deal that might prevent a possible recession sometime next year.

November 14, 2012|By Andrew Tangel and Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times
  • A television feed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows President Obama and his family after his reelection.
A television feed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows President… (Ray Abrams, Associated…)

NEW YORK — There are growing signs that Wall Street is trying to mend its rocky relationship with a president who castigated them as "fat cats" and ushered through tough new regulations after the financial crisis.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon has recently been in contact with the White House and congressional leaders, while Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein publicly called for a new "spirit of compromise and reconciliation." CEOs of 12 major American companies also held a closed-door meeting with President Obama on Wednesday.

The looming "fiscal cliff" is bringing businesses and Obama back together. Both sides are worried that Congress won't strike a deal to avoid the automatic budget cuts and tax increases that economists fear will plunge the nation into a recession early next year.

"He is the president — the election is over," said Kathryn Wylde, president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit organization that represents major financial firms and other companies. "The Wall Street community wants to unite behind a strong president."

Wall Street might have overwhelmingly supported Mitt Romney's presidential campaign with donations, but executives have been quietly working behind the scenes with administration officials for months, Wylde said.

Quiz: How much do you know about the "fiscal cliff"?

They have been helping build support for raising revenue — higher taxes — as part of a deal that would include spending cuts and entitlement reform. Getting CEOs on board could help provide "political cover" to congressional Republicans who in previous fiscal fights have thwarted deals with Obama.

"That's where their charm is real," said Jeff Connaughton, a former lobbyist and congressional aide who wrote the book "The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins." "If they actually helped soften up the Republicans on being OK with raising revenue, that's where they could pile up some real brownie points with Obama."

Wall Street executives have been reaching out to both sides of the aisle now that the contentious election is over.

In an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, Goldman CEO Blankfein urged corporations and the Obama administration to work closer together. He also backed tax increases for wealthy Americans so long as the government is serious about cutting government spending.

Dimon, who has sometimes been a critic of Obama, met with White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew last month. He also has reached out to congressional leaders about preventing a fiscal crisis, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly.

As part of that charm offensive, Dimon even called Elizabeth Warren to congratulate her on being elected a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. Warren has been a fierce critic of the banking industry, and earlier this year called for Dimon to step down as a New York Federal Reserve board member because of a perceived conflict of interest.

Warren declined to comment on her phone call with Dimon. But she — like others on Capitol Hill on Wednesday — welcomed the Wall Street executives' urgency to resolve the fiscal cliff. "I think they have enormous value to add to the discussions," she said.

CEOs talking about a willingness to accept more taxes is crucial in helping to reduce the overall rancor in Washington, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. When Republicans start talking about additional tax revenue, "We need somebody else to have their back, and the business community is a great place" to do that, he said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said business leaders can help spur a deal by warning of the economic consequences of allowing the government to go over the fiscal cliff.

"The election's over and the issue is fixing the debt," Alexander said. "They can create an environment in which senators and congressman are willing to take difficult votes on fixing the debt, because it's going to be hard dirty work, very unpopular, once people see the details of it, but it absolutely has to be done."

At the White House on Wednesday, chief executives met with President Obama for more than an hour to discuss topics such as the fiscal cliff. They mostly listened and tried to give the president constructive feedback on issues facing America's biggest businesses, according to participants.

CEOs believe that the uncertainty is hurting the nation's business climate and preventing hiring. They have urged Congress to extend the tax cuts first championed by President George W. Bush. Obama wants to do so for all but the highest income earners.

Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox Corp., said the meeting did not get into specifics such as tax rates. But she noted that any deal would involve working through "some sticky issues."

"This is all about trying to make American business more competitive, trying to have a fair, balanced approach to tax reform, to spending cuts. And the president was very clear that he wants a fair, balanced approach," Burns told reporters after the meeting.

"We were very clear that if we can help him to get to a solution we are absolutely behind him, because going over the cliff is not something that any of us in the room could live with," she said.

Tangel reported from New York and Puzzanghera from Washington.

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