WASHINGTON — Joe Biden’s tight alliance with organized labor has unnerved some of his business supporters, who worry that his rhetoric and administration’s actions make it tough to rally corporate leaders and CEOs and win their energetic backing of his 2024 presidential candidacy.
Advisers have directly urged Biden to state bluntly that he wants to help business succeed — a message that tends to get lost as he courts working-class voters and embraces their cause for better pay and working conditions, said a top political ally who requested anonymity to speak frankly about internal discussions.
“You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now,” Biden said last month during a first-of-its-kind appearance with striking workers at a picket line in Michigan. Talking through a bullhorn, he stood alongside United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain who, when it was his turn to speak, said that CEOs “sit in their offices, they sit in meetings, and they make decisions. But we make the product.”
The setting was a natural one for Biden, a product of his hardscrabble beginnings in the Rust Belt city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and whose career never much intersected with corporate boardrooms. By showcasing his ties to the labor movement, though, Biden is aggravating tensions with business interests who’ve chafed under his political appointees running regulatory agencies that hold great sway over their industries.
The criticism Biden faces may be driven in part by the pendular shift since the Trump administration, when business flourished under tax cuts and deregulatory measures. Most of the tax cuts that Donald Trump signed into law in 2017 wound up benefiting corporations and higher-income individuals, a Congressional Research Service report showed.
Today, business leaders point to a Biden appointee, Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Lina Khan, along with heads of agencies that oversee labor and consumer relations as impediments to competition and survival in the marketplace.
“Biden at his core is a blue-collar guy from Scranton. He’s never worked in business and he doesn’t have any particular interest in those issues and I don’t criticize him for that,” said Steven Rattner, a longtime Democratic donor who headed the auto industry task force in the Obama administration. “Rightly or wrongly, there’s a perception that there’s a fair amount of hostility toward business, and that makes the business community nervous.”
One Democratic fundraiser, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely, said: “As a general matter, the business community has felt very much ignored by Biden. In our part of the business community, where we raise money, Lina Khan’s name — both of them — are four-letter words.” Khan has rankled business by targeting large companies, such as Amazon and Microsoft, and stoking uncertainty about future mergers.
‘Working class interests’
There is little doubt that Biden will have ample resources to run a general election campaign. What worries some of his pro-business supporters is an apathy setting in among associates about a potential rematch between Biden and Trump.
The fundraiser summarized the argument heard from some business executives as “‘I don’t really love Trump. On the other hand, how bad could it be? He gave me a bunch of money and he didn’t f— with me the way Biden is.’ That’s made it difficult for us to rally business support for Biden as much as we’d like.”
The White House counters that Biden has been a boon to the business world by making substantial investments in new roads and bridges, while pursuing renewable energy projects that create new jobs. In a sign of economic health, 336,000 jobs were created in the month of September, a number that almost doubled Wall Street expectations.
Marty Walsh, Biden’s former labor secretary, said in an interview that Biden’s picket line appearance was “a one-off.”
“The president went out there to show his support,” he said. “No other president has done that. The president also has good relationships with the automakers because of the legislation he passed and the push for electric vehicles and battery charging stations. He’s very pro-business in that sense.”
In a prepared statement, Michael Kikukawa, assistant White House press secretary, said: “The Biden-Harris administration has worked with businesses on everything from unsnarling supply chains to removing junk fees, and we applaud businesses that are doing right by the American people, but we won’t stop holding powerful special interests accountable when they put profits ahead of people.”
Perhaps most worrying for Democrats is that neither workers nor business seem enthused about what the president brands as “Bidenomics,” a program to build the economy from “the middle out.” An NBC News survey last month showed that only 37% approved of his handling of the economy, compared to 59% who disapproved.
Biden’s pro-labor positioning reflects a shift in the way both parties view the business world. Once the party of business, the GOP has reinvented itself as a more populist party suspicious of the influence exerted by high-tech and financial interests. Friendly as he was to well-heeled corporate interests, Trump tried to align himself with striking autoworkers in an appearance in Michigan a day after Biden’s visit.
Compared to the last two Democratic presidents, Biden now leads a party that veered left and adopted the progressive view that concentrated wealth and business power are corrosive to working-class advancement.
“There is really no question in my mind that Biden is pushing working-class interests and organized labors’ interests to a greater extent than his recent Democratic predecessors,” said Brishen Rogers, a former union organizer and now a Georgetown Law professor specializing in labor law.
‘A warning to every CEO’
Past presidents were suitors when it came to business interests.
One cold morning in February 2011, Barack Obama left the White House and strode across Lafayette Square to give a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building, hoping to improve frayed ties to the business community. The symbolism was unmistakable: Reeling from losses in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama was the supplicant. He promised to break down “barriers that stand in the way of your success” and pledged to “go anywhere, anytime to be a booster for American business, American workers and American products.”
At a re-election campaign event in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1996, Bill Clinton assembled hundreds of business executives who gave him their endorsement over his Republican challenger, Bob Dole. “I have wondered for years why the Democratic Party should not have at least as much or more support from American business as the other party,” Clinton said at the time.
It’s hard to imagine Biden making similar overtures in the present political climate. Instead, his political appointees are carrying out policies that some business executives see as hindering their success. Two senators who are darlings of the left, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, put forward candidates to lead key regulatory agencies that can set the terms under which employers merge, charge fees and permit union organizing.
“There’s no question that he has been pulled left by the progressive elements of the party, and that has probably been good politics, to some degree, because it has kept the party together,” Rattner said of Biden. “But on the other hand, I don’t agree with a lot of the anti-business stuff that you sometimes hear from the progressive community.”
Another veteran of a past Democratic administration who also asked to speak anonymously added of the White House, “There’s a general feeling that they sometimes give hip fakes in one direction — they’ll have CEOs in to talk about artificial intelligence — but they are also throwing a lot of elbows through their regulatory agencies.”
“There’s no question that the administration put into play some very hard-core anti-business advocates in some of these top jobs.”
Last month, the commission chaired by Khan joined with 17 states in suing Amazon, accusing the online shopping giant of monopolistic practices that blunt competition and push up prices.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, headed by a Biden appointee and Warren ally, Rohit Chopra, has been targeting what it calls “junk fees” that businesses slap on unwitting customers. (A Chamber of Commerce official countered that doing away with “junk fees” amounts to a form of government price control. Eliminating fees for late credit card payments would raise costs for people who pay on time, said Neil Bradley, the chamber’s chief policy officer.)
At the National Labor Relations Board, Biden installed as general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, who has taken a more aggressive stance toward protecting union organizing rights. In a major ruling in August, the board made it easier for workers to organize in certain circumstances, allowing them to sign cards to unionize as opposed to holding formal elections.
Douglas Farrar, a spokesman for the FTC, said, “Under Chair Khan, we have delivered huge wins for American consumers, small business and workers by bringing down fraudsters and stamping out illegal, anti-competitive practices that have raised prices for nearly every American.”
Taken together, the regulatory agencies are advancing Biden’s view that the nation needs to shore up consumer and worker protections that have been eroded. But for business advocates, the rulings amount to a zero-sum proposition — with employers on the losing end.
Carl Szabo, general counsel at NetChoice, a tech trade association, said that the administration’s actions are tantamount to “a warning to every CEO and every leader of every company in the country. And it’s a warning that should terrify us all. What it is is that no business — regardless of how legal, how consumer-friendly and how good for the country — is safe.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com