Obama Lunches Frequently With CEOs

Tuesday, 02 Mar 2010 08:56 AM

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The fare can be as simple as a cheeseburger and fries. The lunches are often pay-as-you-go affairs. Yet they are some of the most coveted invitations in town.

Five times since last summer, President Obama has invited a small group of corporate CEOs in for a private lunch at the White House.

The business titans gather with Mr. Obama in his private dining room just off the Oval Office, or elsewhere in the White House, to talk over global economic policy, corporate bonuses, climate change, high school dropout rates, and more.

There's no set agenda as the president picks the brains of some of the brightest minds in the corporate world. But Mr. Obama said the sessions have helped him think through ways to create a "smarter economy."

Early on, when the economy was reeling, his conversations with corporate leaders had a "solving-the-problem-right-in-front-of-you flavor," Mr. Obama said. But now that the situation has stabilized, he's able to think through "bigger, strategic questions" with them, Mr. Obama told Business Week last month.

The CEOs, for their part, get to offer perspectives from the corporate suite, and size up the president in an unrivaled setting.

Lew Hay, chairman and chief executive officer of power producer FPL Group Inc., remembers his lunch with the president in October as a "kind of heady experience" and said the president went out of his way to put his four lunch guests at ease.

"It was far easier to relax in his presence than I think any of us would have expected," Mr. Hay said in an interview, adding that Mr. Obama seemed intent on getting all he could out of the session.

"Sometimes people talk to you, and they're going through the motions," Mr. Hay said. "He was deeply engaged through the entire time."

The lunches are part of a broader administration effort to reach out to big business at a time when even Mr. Obama has acknowledged there's a perception that his administration has been anti-business. This is a president, after all, whose finger-wagging at "fat cat bankers" and "obscene" executive bonuses grated on corporate chieftains.

"There's perception, and there's reality," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser who coordinates the administration's outreach to business. "These sessions are designed to provide some reality."

"I think when you have a meal with somebody and you really can roll up your sleeves and talk to them ... it's actually where you learn the most, and where trust develops," Ms. Jarrett said.

Twenty-eight CEOs - from big-name outfits like JPMorgan Chase, Wal-Mart, Coke, Xerox, ExxonMobil, Verizon, Microsoft and Starbucks - have taken part in the lunches. Seventeen joined Mr. Obama for a private dinner in the State Dining Room last week, many of them repeat guests from lunch.

The 90-minute lunches offer the kind of insider access that most people only dream about. And it is a measure of how sensitive the White House is about the perception of special treatment that the guests have sometimes been asked for a credit card number to pay for their meals.

Nucor's Dan DiMicco, CEO of one of the world's largest steelmakers, was one of four chief executives who had lunch with Mr. Obama last July. It happened that their meeting came one day after the president's much-publicized "beer summit" with the black professor and white policeman at the center of a national flare-up over race.

Mr. DiMicco "didn't drink beers with President Obama," the company later reported on its Web site. "But he did get some iced tea, waffle fries and a cheeseburger."

Mr. Hay remembers a Mexican-style soup, salad and apple-rhubarb torte being served at his lunch but says the awed business leaders didn't really eat much.

The most recent CEO lunch was last month, when 10 corporate leaders met with Mr. Obama, Ms. Jarrett, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers. And more lunches are in the offing.

The guests, particularly those who don't already know Mr. Obama, come in "curious but a little nervous," Ms. Jarrett said. "And I think they walk out feeling as though this is someone with whom they can work."

The president, she added, "after each lunch has often remarked that he learned something he didn't know."

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC

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