Even for a speaker as famously gifted as President Obama, business executives are a tough crowd.
In my experience, they don't laugh out loud at jokes as easily and carefree as, say, college students and others who might be more prone to laugh, clap, cheer or swoon at Obama's wit.
By contrast, the gray-suit crowd is more likely to turn to one another after a good punch line and murmur without a smile: "Funny."
That's about as enthusiastic as Obama's audience sounded on Monday as he opened his speech to the U. S. Chamber of Commerce with this ice breaker: "I'm here in the interest of being more neighborly," he said after walking the block to the chamber's headquarters from the nearby White House.
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"Maybe if we would have brought over a fruitcake when I first moved in," he said, "we would have gotten off on a better foot. But I'm going to make it up."
With that, he began a speech that history may well remember as fruitcake diplomacy: a nice gesture that sticks around forever, regardless of whether anyone eats it.
This particular gesture was significant in light of Obama's on-again, off-again relationship with the chamber, which is the nation's largest federation of businesses.
Fundamentally the chamber's agenda sees little but virtue in what Democrats see as vices: opposition to unions, reducing taxes on the wealthy, getting rid of the minimum wage, privatizing Medicare and Social Security, repealing the new health-care law, eliminating corporate taxes, cutting back regulations that constrain Wall Street from becoming a casino, and reducing rules designed to promote health and safety.
Still, Obama and the chamber have found some common ground, in between battles. The chamber backed his economic stimulus plan, but attacked his health care and climate-change legislation. His administration criticized the chamber for "mobilizing against change."
But tempers cooled enough after the midterms for both sides to agree to work on a South Korea free-trade pact. The chamber also approved of Obama's appointments in January of JPMorgan Chase executive Bill Daley, a former secretary of commerce, to be his new chief of staff, and Jeffrey R. Immelt, the head of General Electric Co., to be a top presidential economic adviser.
But as much as those choices delighted the right, they angered the left. Liberals viewed both executives as products of a Wall Street world that's hoarding cash and sending jobs overseas while feeding off tax breaks and taxpayer bailouts.
In a speech that navigated between those extremes, Obama sounded a lot like a father trying to deliver freedom and discipline at the same time: He's willing to let the kids borrow the family car again - as long as they promise to get it home before midnight. Oh, and don't forget to pick up Grandma first.
He called on American businesses to "get in the game" by letting loose trillions of dollars that they have been holding in reserve. "I get it," he said in terms of the need for businesses to make a profit, and he promised to "go anywhere" in the world to promote trade. That line prompted a rare moment of applause, which means it also infuriated many on the left.
He also found common ground with the chamber on investing in technology and infrastructure, reducing the nation's debt and removing "outdated and unnecessary regulations." They only disagree on how to define such tricky words as "outdated" and "unnecessary."
To pry more employment and investment dollars out of business, Obama will have to provide more incentives than patriotism. That's fine, as long as he avoids negotiating away too many of the regulatory protections that workers and consumers already have won.
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