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Biden's team asks CEOs how to further boost the economy while Trump says business is on his side

WASHINGTON — (AP) — On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden likes to take a hard thwack at corporate America.

The Democrat tells voters that companies should pay more in taxes and he blames many businesses for fueling higher prices by stoking "greedflation" and "shrinkflation."

But for the past several months, top Biden administration officials have also stepped up their outreach to CEOs and other corporate leaders, asking about what they need. The effort encroaches on business community terrain that former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, considers to be his home turf.

Both candidates want to drive home a message to voters going into November that they can work with employers, even if the fiercely divided electorate has left many companies wary of publicly taking sides politically.

The Biden team's pitch to business leaders goes something like this: We think the economy is doing well, but we want to hear from you about how we can drive investment.

"They know that they'll always get a hearing," said Lael Brainard, director of the White House National Economic Council. "We're pragmatists. We solve problems for them."

BIDEN AND TRUMP ARE BOTH COURTING BUSINESS

On Thursday, Trump will present his case before the Business Roundtable, an association of more than 200 CEOs, for why the economy would be better if he returned to the Oval Office.

Biden was invited to appear as well, but he will be in Italy for a Group of Seven summit of world leaders. White House chief of staff Jeff Zients, himself a former CEO, will stand in and pitch the president's vision to the group.

Biden has long sought to balance the interests of businesses and workers, tempering his criticism of companies by noting that as a former senator from Delaware he comes from the “corporate capital of the world.”

Trump, for his part, burnished his reputation as a billionaire property developer and has marketed everything from educational courses to steaks and neckties, in addition to having his namesake Trump Media & Technology Group trading on the stock market.

Having cut corporate taxes during his term and pledged to slash regulations, Trump has lined up support from Wall Street billionaires such as Stephen Schwarzman, who called him a “vote for change.”

The Washington Post reported that Trump has asked oil industry executives to help fund his campaign, given the profits his administration would produce for them, a report that the Trump campaign said was false.

Trump has described the U.S. economy as horrible despite the low 4% unemployment rate and rising stock market this year. His argument largely resonates with voters because of the 2022 spike in inflation, which has left many U.S. adults pessimistic about the economy.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said that “business leaders and working families alike are eager for the return of these common-sense policies” such as tax cuts, deregulation and increased oil and natural gas production.

WHAT CEOS ARE TELLING THE WHITE HOUSE

Biden’s top aides heard a different view on the economy during their business outreach than what Trump is pushing. Administration officials say the CEOs they’ve met with are generally satisfied by the performance of the stock market and the overall economy, as inflation has eased without the recession that some feared.

American business leaders, according to the Biden team, are looking for ways to sustain growth: There are not enough skilled workers to fill available jobs. Government permitting needs to be streamlined. And they generally agree with the administration’s push to renew a corporate tax break for research and development expenses.

Multiple Biden administration officials said that corporate leaders also expressed concerns about Trump, even though the White House-CEO discussions have specifically not been about the November elections. The tariff hikes championed by Trump could disrupt relationships with trade partners and hurt corporate revenues. Stocks and bonds could tumble if Trump tries to assert control over politically independent agencies such as the Federal Reserve or undermines the rule of law that has been a bedrock of American capitalism.

The increased outreach by Biden's team came at the behest of Zients. The chief of staff gathered six other top officials at a February dinner with the goal of implementing a strategy to speak more with CEOs and their predecessors.

Each official agreed to talk to 10 CEOs. By the end of April, group members had chatted with more than 100. The outreach led to Biden meeting with eight CEOs in May, including the heads of United Airlines, Marriott, Xerox, Corning and Citigroup.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said he walked away from the conversations more fully aware of how issues overlapped. The administration's renewable energy policies were essential to build out the data centers used for artificial intelligence, for example.

Adeyemo said the administration has had some success in reducing the federal paperwork needed for permitting, bringing down processing times that could drag out for two years. And with some workforce programs losing funding that was tied to pandemic-era federal aid, the administration is seeing if companies can take over the financing.

There is a big-picture argument being made by the administration that its plans are better for overall growth, which in the long run is good for profits.

“One of the things we don’t do is pretend we’re going to agree with the business community on everything,” Adeyemo said. “We want feedback and we’re going to continue to talk to you."

THE RACE TO IMPROVE WORKERS' SKILLS

At the Biden meeting, people familiar with the conversations said that Brendan Bechtel, CEO of the Bechtel Group, a leading construction company, stressed the shortage of skilled workers. Because companies can't hire everyone they need, some are having to forgo business in ways that limit their revenues.

Labor Department figures show there are roughly 1.5 million more job openings right now than unemployed people seeking work. And as job openings have gone unfilled over the past year due to a lack of workers, companies have pulled back on their postings. Manufacturing companies, for example, have 516,000 jobs open, compared to 647,000 a year ago.

The shortage reflects both the strong job market as well as decades of education policies that favored universities, often neglecting the need for tradespeople such as electricians, plumbers and welders. The percentage of men aged 25-54 in the labor force has fallen for decades and reversing that trend could bring millions back into the job market.

“In the U.S., we got into a college-for-all mentality and other forms of skill development were demoted,” said Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University economist.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has made it a priority to bring more women into construction and the success of her department's funding of efforts to revive the domestic manufacturing of computer chips could depend on having a large pool of trained workers. She said that solving the problem depends on greater partnerships with the companies doing the hiring.

“You need to start with the employers — which might sound not intuitive," Raimondo said. "You go to the company and figure out who they’re going to hire at what wages and what skills.”

Raimondo saw the issue in economic terms, as growth would be slower if companies lack skilled workers. But she also views it as a cultural and political issue. Voters need to feel optimistic that they have paths into the middle class, one of the promises that Biden made as he seeks a second term.

“People start to lose hope when they feel there is no place for them in the economy,” Raimondo said.

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