How Biden is winning over corporate America behind closed doors

U.S. President Joe Biden departs the White House in Washington, U.S., for a campaign fundraiser in California, May 9, 2024. 

Craig Hudson | Reuters

President Joe Biden has had it out for corporate America for much of his term.

Over the past three years, he has worked to dethrone the interests of big businesses and billionaires, instead rooting his economic agenda in union support, aggressive antitrust regulation, a crackdown on so-called “junk fees,” promoting a tax on the wealthy, and blaming corporate greed for consumers’ inflation-squeezed wallets.

“As major corporations, many seeing record profits, overcharge the American people — in some cases keeping prices elevated despite inflation falling — President Biden is taking unprecedented action to deliver relief for middle class families,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates wrote in a memo on Monday.

The letter called out Big Pharma, grocery chains, credit card companies, airlines and student debt creditors for “price gouging,” one of the administration’s go-to lines of attack.

This kind of rhetoric has left some in the corporate community with a sour taste.

“I think there are instances now where the rhetoric against industries and companies is going too far,” Neil Bradley, the chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told CNBC in an interview earlier in May. “It’s not a good look.”

In response, the business community has repeatedly sued the Biden administration for its regulatory action.

The Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit in April against the Federal Trade Commission for its ban on workplace noncompete agreements. In a separate legal challenge, the banking industry won a victory after a judge ruled to pause the implementation of the White House’s new limits on credit card late fees.

“Rich special interests are pushing back to protect their abuses and junk fees,” Bates added in the Monday memo, nodding to those lawsuits.

Behind closed doors

Despite the public-facing hostility, relations between the White House and the business community are cozier behind closed doors.

“The people in the Biden administration overwhelmingly are incredibly professional,” Bradley said. “They take meetings, return calls, they engage with stakeholders across the spectrum with a wide variety of views.”

Earlier this month, Biden and his cabinet members hosted eight executives at the White House for a private roundtable where they talked about infrastructure investment, geopolitical issues and the U.S. economy’s performance relative to the rest of the world, according to people who attended the meeting.

Among the attendees were United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser and Marriott International CEO Anthony Capuano — leaders in industries that have been targets of the White House’s regulatory crackdown over the past several years.

The following day, Biden visited the battleground state of Wisconsin to tout a $3.3 billion investment to build an artificial intelligence data center from Microsoft, a company that the FTC has sued to block its closed acquisition of video game maker Activision.

“Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, thank you for your partnership and for showing how we get things done — and big things done — in America,” Biden said in a speech during the Wisconsin visit. “And thank you for your friendship. I really mean it.”

Those warm words don’t quite fit with Biden’s regular corporate antagonism and are examples of the current balancing act between the president and corporate America.

Biden, who has built a pro-labor, pro-consumer economic brand, needs the help of industry leaders to make private infrastructure investments and could use their support to pitch the effectiveness of his approach as the November election nears.

The White House has a broader plan to stoke collaboration with the business community, even while maintaining its hawkish regulatory approach.

A dinnertime deal

Top White House officials devised that plan at a dinner in early February, according to a senior administration official.

Cabinet members like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, National Economic Council Director Lael Brainard decided that each would set up a call or meeting with 10 CEOs to talk about how the private sector can help implement Biden’s key infrastructure investments from policies like the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act.

Since that February dinner, the team has had meetings with over 100 CEOs, according to the official, on topics like artificial intelligence, workforce training and pricing practices.

In March, Mark Cuban and other business leaders attended a White House roundtable about lowering drug and healt-care costs.

Those issues are among the many economic concerns that are top of mind for voters as the November rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump approaches.

In the months ahead, Biden will continue to hammer his message that he has delivered a healthy post-pandemic economic recovery.

To make that case, the president is planning to collaborate with businesses, rather than simply attack them. According to the senior administration official, Biden’s cooperation with the business community is only going “to continue to ramp up in coming months,” especially on topics like China trade and taxes.

Biden and the business community know they need each other to execute goals like modernizing U.S. infrastructure and keeping pace with the global economy.

“Two things can be true,” Bradley said. “They can both have policies in which there’s big fundamental differences, and they can be open to engagement in conversation and willingness to work together.”

— CNBC’s Megan Cassella contributed to this report.

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