In a strange turn of events, President Obama has quickly gone from gracious beer summit moderator, to rude, inhospitable lunch host. Fox News, NBC, and Politico (and probably many more media outlets) have reported on what was intended to be a non-story:
Four of the most powerful business leaders in America arrived at the White House one day last month for lunch with President Barack Obama, sitting down in his private dining room just steps from the Oval Office.
But even for powerful CEOs, there's no such thing as a free lunch: White House staffers collected credit card numbers for each executive and carefully billed them for the cost of the meal with the president.
But the White House's attempt to avoid a scandal has backfired. Officials defended the move by saying that billing the businessmen was simply a way to avoid a conflict of interest. Sounds reasonable enough, right?
Not really. The weirdness of this whole situation stems from the peculiar assertion that offering billionaire CEOs a free lunch would create a conflict of interest in the first place. Conflict of interest concerns might make a bit of sense if the CEOs were picking up the tab. Obama is a public servant, after all. But if the White House is providing the lunch, which interests would suddenly be conflicted?
The concern, I suppose, is that giving these wealthy businessmen a free lunch would be tantamount to bribery, an attempt to win their cooperation in government schemes by sweetening the deal with tasty vittles. But something tells me that even if a free lunch wasn't involved, CEOs of major American corporations would have plenty of reasons to be nice to Obama. He is the president, after all.