Zakaria: Obama's CEO Problem

The American economy is sputtering, and we are running out of options. Interest rates can't go any lower. Another burst of government spending—whether a good or bad idea—looks politically impossible. Is there anything that could protect us from the dangers of stagnation or a double dip? Actually, there is a second stimulus, one that could have a dramatic effect on the economy—even more so than government spending. And it won't add to the deficit.

The Federal Reserve recently reported that America's 500 largest nonfinancial companies have accumulated an astonishing $1.8 trillion of cash on their balance sheets. By any calculation (for example, as a percentage of assets), this is higher than it has been in almost half a century. And yet, most corporations are not spending this money on new plants, equipment, or workers. Were they to begin loosening their purse strings, hundreds of billions of dollars would start pouring through the economy. And these investments would likely have greater effect and staying power than a government stimulus.

Now, let me be clear. I think there is a strong case for a temporary and targeted government stimulus. Both people and companies are being very cautious about spending. Right now, government spending is what's keeping the economy afloat. Without a second stimulus, state and local governments will have to slash spending and raise taxes, which will produce a downward spiral of higher unemployment, slower growth, lower tax revenue, and a larger deficit. Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, told me that when the stimulus money runs out at the end of this year, he will be forced to lay off 5,000 teachers. Multiply that example a thousand times to get a sense of what 2011 could look like.

But government spending can only be a bridge to private-sector investment. The key to a sustainable recovery and robust economic growth is to get companies to start investing in America. So why are they reluctant, despite having mounds of cash lying around? I put this question to a series of business leaders over the past few days. They were all expansive on the topic, and all wanted to stay off the record, for fear of offending people in Washington.

Economic uncertainty was the primary cause of their caution. "We've just been through a tsunami, and that produces caution," one said to me. But in addition to economics, they kept talking about politics, about the uncertainty surrounding regulations and taxes. Some have even begun to speak out publicly. Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, complained last Friday that government was not in sync with entrepreneurs. The Business Roundtable, which had supported the Obama administration, has begun to complain about the myriad new laws and regulations being cooked up in Washington.

One CEO said to me, "Almost every agency we deal with has announced some expansion of its authority, which naturally makes me concerned about what's in store for us for the future." Another pointed out that between the new health-care bill, financial reform, and possibly cap-and-trade, his company had lawyers working day and night trying to figure out the implications of all these new regulations. Lobbyists in Washington have been delighted by all this new activity. "[Obama] exaggerates our power, but he increases demand for our services," the superlobbyist Tony Podesta told The New York Times.

Most of the business leaders I spoke to had voted for Barack Obama. They still admired him. Those who had met him thought he was unusually smart. But they all thought he was, at his core, anti business. When I would ask them for specifics, they pointed to the fact that Obama had no businessmen or women in his cabinet, that he rarely consulted with CEOs (except for photo ops), that he had almost no private-sector experience, that he'd made clear that he thought government and nonprofit work was superior to work in the private sector. It all added up to a profound sense of distrust.

Some of this is a product of chance. The economic crisis forced the government into expansions of its authority in dozens of areas, from finance to automobiles. But precisely because of these circumstances, Obama now needs to outline a growth and competitiveness agenda that will seem compelling to the American business community. This might sound like psychology more than economics, and the populist left will surely scream that the last thing we need to do is pander to business. But in fact the first thing we need is for these people to start spending their money—soon. As a leading New York businessman, who had publicly supported Obama during the campaign, said to me, "Their perception is our reality."