Most business executives fumed and groused for the eight years Barack Obama was in the White House. He was a former community organizer who had never met a payroll, and those in the corporate boardrooms thought he was no friend of free enterprise.
In 2010, New York real estate and media tycoon Mortimer Zuckerman said Obama's "demonization of business" was discouraging investment, sapping job growth and generally creating an "economic Katrina." Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Technology Association, called Obama "the most anti-business president" in his lifetime. Former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch implored the president, "Stop it. You can't go industry by industry … through intimidation, business by business by business."
As ordeals go, though, theirs was notably mild. The stock market soared; corporate profits nearly tripled; and the unemployment rate declined from 7.8 percent to 4.8 percent. From the depths of the Great Recession, the economy began what is now the third-longest expansion on record. When it came to the economy, the Obama years looked more like Mardi Gras than Hurricane Katrina.
Now, instead of a liberal lawyer in the White House, CEOs have one of their own. And they're finding it's not everything they hoped. The stock market and other economic indicators look about the same as they did before Donald Trump took office. In Obama's final six months, the economy added an average of nearly 181,000 jobs per month. In Trump's first six months, it added 179,000 per month. GDP growth has even slowed a bit.
More troublesome at the moment is Trump's insistence on defending Confederate monuments and stoking white racial resentments. In recent days, so many CEOs resigned from the president's two business advisory councils that Trump closed them down. Some of the executives no doubt were genuinely upset at the president's coddling of bigots and his inability to behave with a dignity befitting his office. Some were fearful of alienating customers who find Trump toxic.
Other business executives are edging away from the president as though he were an erratic panhandler, and for the same reason: Best not to be close to him if he flips out. You don't want to have to stand there in silent mortification, as White House chief of staff John Kelly had to do the other day, while the president makes a fool of himself on national TV. It would not be good for your company or your career.
But even before Trump's Charlottesville debacle, he was not covering himself with capitalist glory. His January travel order put him at odds with some 100 tech firms that sued to block it, arguing, "It disrupts ongoing business operations. And it threatens companies' ability to attract talent, business, and investment to the United States."
His decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord didn't go down well with many big companies, 25 of which had signed a letter urging him to stay in. Even oil giants Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips opposed the withdrawal. In abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Trump spurned the recommendation of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. His insistence on renegotiating NAFTA has the Big Three automakers worried about their supply chains.
A lot of executives applaud Trump's war on federal regulation. But what else has he done for them? His failures on Obamacare have generated uncertainty among insurance companies and health care providers. His sour relations with Congress make tax reform less plausible every day. Infrastructure is what he was supposed to focus on Tuesday when he appeared before reporters at Trump Tower. But he buried that issue by venting about Charlottesville.
Perhaps worst of all, he has been the arrogant bully that Jack Welch and others accused Obama of being. Trump slammed Boeing over the cost of Air Force One. He blasted Ford over a planned factory in Mexico. He has repeatedly attacked Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. He went after Nordstrom for dropping his daughter's products. When Merck's Kenneth Frazier quit his manufacturing advisory group Monday, Trump flamed him for "ripoff drug prices."
His recurring message is that any executive who doesn't do as Trump wishes can expect retribution from the most powerful man on earth. Obama was not the friend CEOs think the president of the United States should be. But in Trump, they're finding out what it's like to have a real enemy.
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