Obama Finally Brings the Chamber a Fruitcake (It’s Called Infrastructure)

President Obama paid a visit to the Chamber of Commerce this morning, trying to make nice after a hot-and-cold couple of years.

“I’m here in the interest of being more neighborly,” Obama said by way of introduction. “Maybe we would have gotten off on a better foot if I had brought over a fruitcake when we first moved in.”

The Chamber supported Obama’s effort to keep the economy from “falling off the cliff” by passing the stimulus act. And it’s a big fan of Obama’s push for infrastructure investment, though as Bill Scher of Campaign for America’s Future notes, the Chamber’s support of infrastructure investment might have been more convincing if it hadn’t spent $31 million to get conservatives elected who would oppose essential spending.

But the Chamber was angry enough about the health care law and financial reform that it was ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The business association also fought with Obama last fall over charges that they were facilitating foreign campaign contributions.

Indeed, in his “State of American Business” speech last month, Chamber President Tom Donohue spent only 178 words – out of almost 4,500 – on infrastructure, not mentioning it until he was about three-quarters of the way done his speech. Still, noting that traffic congestion is “dragging down our economy,” the Chamber continues to advocate for greater investment. “The U.S. Chamber will work with anyone who shares our goals,” Donohue said in a statement following the State of the Union, “and we don’t care who gets the credit.”

In today’s appearance, which has been described in the media alternately as an “olive branch” and “the ultimate photo opportunity”, Obama got around to talking up the need to rebuild the nation’s transportation system a little earlier on. Starting with language borrowed from the State of the Union about “out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building our competitors”, Obama launched into his now-familiar push for investment:

We also have a responsibility as a nation to provide our people and our businesses with the fastest, most reliable way to move goods and information. The costs to business from the outdated and inadequate infrastructure we currently have are enormous. That’s why I want to put more people to work rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges. And that’s why I’ve proposed connecting 80 percent of the country to high-speed rail, and making it possible for companies to put high-speed internet coverage in reach of virtually all Americans.

You understand the importance of this. The fact is, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO don’t agree on a whole lot. Tom Donohue and Richard Trumka aren’t exactly Facebook friends. But they agree on the need to build a 21st century infrastructure. And I want to thank the Chamber for pushing Congress to make more infrastructure investments, and to do so in the most cost-effective way possible: with tax dollars that leverage private capital, and with projects determined not by politics, but by what’s best for our economy.

Speaking of Facebook friends – and pushing Congress – Donohue and Trumka will show up together to a Senate committee hearing next week to support a “strong transportation bill.” And tomorrow, Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood are joining forces tomorrow in Philadelphia’s famed 30th Street Station to continue to beat the drum for a 21st century transportation system.

Obama’s appearance this morning may not signal a decisive change in his relationship with the Chamber. Big business still thinks Obama’s administration is over-regulating them, and Obama is desperately trying to win them back (and, along with them, the centrists and conservatives that align themselves with corporate America.) But infrastructure is the issue around which all these forces can come together for a common goal. And for those who want to see a strong federal commitment to rebuilding the country’s antiquated transportation system, a good working relationship between the president and the Chamber is essential.