NANCY BENACWASHINGTON (AP) ¿ 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 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 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," Obama said. But now that the situation has stabilized, he's able to think through "bigger, strategic questions" with them, 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 of power producer FPL Group Inc., remembers his lunch with the president last 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," Hay said in an interview, adding that Obama seemed intent on getting all he could out of the session. "Sometimes people talk to you, and they're going through the motions," 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 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 with 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," Jarrett said. Twenty-eight CEOs ¿ from big-name outfits like JPMorgan Chase, Wal-Mart, Coke, Xerox, ExxonMobil, Verizon, Microsoft, Starbucks and more ¿ have taken part in the lunches. Seventeen joined Obama for a private dinner in the State Dining Room last week, many of them repeat guests from the lunch bunch. 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 to cough up 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 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. 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." 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 Obama, Jarrett, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and economic adviser Larry Summers. And more lunches are in the offing.
The guests, particularly those who don't already know Obama, come in "curious but a little nervous," 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." Some guests are invited because of their reputations as business leaders with smart ideas, others because of their interest in public policy, And some, said Jarrett, get the call "because we hear that they're grumpy about something, and we think it would be good for the president to hear firsthand what their issues are." And no, she didn't name names. Jarrett described the lunchtime conversations as frank but said they've never gotten heated. "People have been respectful but blunt," she said, "and if they have observed comments that they thought weren't fair, they've been very ready to tell the president that." Obama, she added, has not hesitated to tell them when he thinks there is a disconnect between them and the American people. The lunches bring together eclectic voices. Honeywell CEO David Cote, who has visited with Obama over both lunch and dinner, was a vocal supporter of the president's economic stimulus package last year, telling the president publicly, "Thank God you are not a timid man." Other lunch guests, such as FedEx CEO Frederick Smith, were big backers of Republican John McCain in the 2008 election. Obama later said his lunchtime conversation with Smith was "incredibly productive." Real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman, owner the New York Daily News, was part of the corporate lunch group in January ¿ just days after he'd released a column that said the president had "done everything wrong" in his first year and proclaimed the administration "politically corrupt." Overall, with the lunches and other events, Obama, Jarrett and Emanuel between them have met with more than 200 CEOs, according to the White House. The contacts haven't generated much criticism because the administration also has frequently welcomed labor leaders, small business representatives and others to the White House.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project of Government Oversight, credited the White House for listening to a wide range of voices and being upfront about the lunches, in contrast to the Bush administration's more secretive approach. Brian did say it seemed a little silly to ask the CEOs to pay for their food."Come on," she said. "On that one, they're trying too hard." In the end, of course, it's policy that matters, not power-lunching. Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's legislative director, said labor likes Obama's agenda, "so we're not really concerned about who he has lunch with." Union leaders have also had plenty of chances to visit the White House. Small business leaders have also been welcomed at the White House, but Stephanie Cathcart, speaking for the National Federation of Independent Business, said it's not clear the administration is "truly hearing what we're saying" on health care and other issues.