Obama Teams Up With G.E.; Iran Palaver Peters Out; 2012 Arrives At White House

Obama Brings Good Things to Light at G.E.

“Jeff Immelt’s experience at G.E. and his understanding of the vital role the private sector plays in creating jobs and making America competitive makes him up to the challenge of leading this new council.”

-- Statement from President Obama announcing that G.E. CEO Jeff Immelt will lead the new President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

When Democrats said President Obama was “pro-business,” we didn’t know they meant one business in particular.

There are a few companies on the Obama corporate A List – Democratic patrons Google and Goldman Sachs both turn up again and again at White House functions and for special recognition – but no company seems to get the VIP treatment that General Electric receives.

Obama will announce today on a visit to a G.E. plant in Schenectady, N.Y. that G.E. CEO Jeffrey Immelt will lead his new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. The panel replaces the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker.

Volker, who helped President Ronald Reagan whip inflation and launch two decades of growth, will be replaced by Immelt, who has often spoken of his desire to put G.E. on the inside track for government subsidies and incentives in the Obama era.

Whether it is pushing the president’s plan for global warming fees in order to create demand for his “Ecomagination” line of windmills, solar panels, etc., boosting the president’s national health-care law as part of an effort to sell more medical equipment, or enthusing over the Obama strategy of making loans available for industrial exporters, Immelt has been an Obama stalwart all along. Immelt has also consistently argued to shareholders that there is big money to be made in advancing the Democratic agenda.

While most corporate leaders have taken a wait and see approach to Obama’s occasional overtures to the private sector, G.E., along with Google, Goldman and few others, have backed him to the hilt.

It is unclear how the administration plans to deal with the ethics challenges created by having a CEO whose income is determined by stock performance leading a panel designed to recommend government policies. G.E. (2009 revenue: $157 billion) is a huge government contractor and is always in the market for new subsidies and incentives.

Immelt’s shareholders certainly had to think that access had its benefits this week when the Obama administration signed off on a plan to allow the company to spin off under-performing NBC to cable giant Comcast.

Though intended to show Obama’s coolness with corporate America, the Immelt pick will likely reinforce the perception in American boardrooms that Obama likes to play favorites when it comes to the economy.

He’s visited so many battery makers that his staff must now be coated in a thin layer of nickel-cadmium. And while Obama plays rough with the oil and coal industries, he can’t say enough good about technology firms and “green jobs.”

And while Volker was said to have always been locked out of the Obama inner circle, Immelt should have the president’s ear. Immelt’s campaign donations and constant boosterism of the Obama agenda should provide a solid foundation for becoming a close adviser to the president, or perhaps just making that advisory role official.

The suspicious eye that will be cast on Immelt, though, may lessen his ability to provide the connection to the business world Obama has promised. Other CEOs are unlikely to see a competitor who pushes policies explicitly to benefit his company as an ally in the fight for a fair, free market.

Iran Talks Run Out of Steam

“I am tired of turning the other cheek when Iran is concerned.”

-- Former Obama National Security Adviser James Jones at a panel discussion in Washington forecasting frustration with today’s latest round of talks with the rogue nation.

Talks begin today in Istanbul between representatives of Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security CouncilChina, France, Russia, Britain and America – plus Germany.

And what is remarkable is that even diplomats who love talk for talk’s sake are saying that it is a wasted exercise. Iran is still making nuclear bombs and still refusing to open itself to full inspections. And at the last round of talks in December, nothing happened except a lot of frustration and an agreement to meet again.

The challenge is that Russia and China do a lot of business with Iran and probably don’t mind too much the idea of having the country providing a counterweight to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Yes they fund terrorism and menace the region, but they do cause trouble for America. That’s counts for a lot in Moscow and Beijing.

But once the talking cure can be ruled out, that brings the Obama administration to the point of decision on Iran.

The president has already backed off his first offer of engagement and sought tougher sanctions against Iran. But like a big, mean dog that’s behind a too-short fence, Iran has all of its neighbors worried. And unless America is seen leading the way for the West, either the Israelis will take action, potentially starting a massive war, or an Arab nation will acquire nuclear weapons of its own in defense. Neither outcome will help the U.S.

White House Begins Campaign, Laments Politics

"The campaign is going to be run by a group of people in Chicago whose jobs will be to worry about that, not the president's.”

-- White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissing the notion that President Obama’s reelection campaign will prove a distraction.

It was two weeks ago that President Obama offered a reproof of Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to reporters, saying he hoped that the two Republicans "will realize that there will be plenty of time to campaign for 2012, in 2012.”

Well, that was so two weeks ago.

Team Obama announced its 2012 campaign team on Thursday. The campaign manager will be current Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina and the senior consultant will be David Axelrod, who departs today as a senior White House adviser.

David Plouffe, the 2008 campaign manager will be the political operative inside the White House, taking on a senior adviser role as the administration shuts down its office of political affairs in an effort to cleanse the building of the corrupting influences of vote seeking.

While the New York Times and other mainstream outlets are grinding through the personnel switches with an obsessive eye, the larger story here isn’t about which player is in which position, but instead what the move tells us about how Obama is looking at his reelection effort.

First, having the campaign headquarters in Chicago and closing the White House political office are showy ways to say that the president won’t let the campaign affect his job.

That is, of course, kind of a hard case to make. Obama’s galloping efforts to show his business friendliness and his embrace of Clintonites in top jobs are all symbolic ways to try to undo the pernicious problems he has with public perception of him as a liberal.

As Thursday’s FOX News poll showed, Obama has lots of work to do.

The president’s 7-point bump in job approval came mostly from a 12-point spike in support among Democrats. That suggests a hardening of his base support in the face of a growing Republican threat, not the dawning of a new moderate embrace.

But, Obama is a big one for symbols, and his symbolic banishment of all day-to-day politics from the White House, save Plouffe, is intended to say a lot. As Gibbs said in defending the move to get the campaign underway, Obama will be stingy with early campaign appearances and fundraising.

But, running for reelection is kind of Obama’s job. His two predecessors both took to reelection campaigning with vigor and both managed to turn back stout challenges. Obama sounds more like President George H.W. The elder Bush was famously disdainful of crassly pleading for votes while he had a country to run.

Obama is notorious for not liking the part of his job that relates to politics. He thinks of himself as a philosopher king, not a glad hander. His lofty rhetoric may suit moments of great gravity, but his stump speeches tend to ramble and then retreat into talking points.

By having his campaign operate so far outside the White House, Obama will be able to avoid some of the daily reminders of political hurly-burly, but he will also create competing corporate cultures.

Everything the president does has a political effect and everything he does is shaped by politics. That’s just the gig. The test for modern presidents is balancing the often competing demands of political leadership and presidential duty. Pretending that is not so by compartmentalizing the political element of the job may tend to create dissonance at a time when the president needs harmony.

President Obama was likely sincere in his hope that 2012 could wait for 2012, but as they say, hope is not a strategy. No matter how the boss feels, his team will do what they think necessary to get the job done.

Ironically, rather than keeping the White House pure from politics, the main effect of the banishment may be to encourage political excess. If Obama and his policy advisers aren’t watching and his staff is half-a-continent away, there’s no telling what his campaign team will get up to.

Obama may like the idea of a little plausible deniability, but the Chicago team could easily get carried away.

Government Unions, NYT in pension Panic

“They are readying a massive assault on us. We’re taking this very seriously.”

-- Charles M. Loveless, legislative director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to the New York Times.

Today’s New York Times is sounding the alarm about an alleged secret Republican plan to cut off government retirees.

Citing a Weekly Standard article, a question at a hearing and some strong suspicions, the Times today suggests that Republicans are working towards letting states declare bankruptcy and shed their pension obligations.

The pension alarmism at the Times drove the paper last month to profile an Alabama town that actually did default and left the menacing question hanging – Could you be next?

The genesis of the fear on the labor left is that most of the states are broke, and that pension obligations are killing them. The combination of the Baby Boom glut of retirees, the lost market revenue of the Panic of 2008 and the lavish expansions of benefits during the boom times has pension obligations exploding.

It probably won’t be this year, but some year soon, a large city or a small state will have to say it can’t meet its minimum contribution to its pension fund and AFSCME will freak out.

What the unions want is another round of bailouts for states in order to prevent layoffs. That’s not going to happen. So the fear is that Republicans will devise a controlled form of bankruptcy – similar to what President Obama contrived for General Motors – for states. That would allow states to scrap their public employee contracts and start again on more affordable pension plans.

But right now, states seem to be coping. Andrew Cuomo in New York and Chris Christie in new Jersey are leading the way, slashing spending and giving public workers a rap on the snout. Illinois though, which is trying to do the job through taxes alone, is looking pretty wobbly these days.

If there is a collapse, who will blink first: anti-bailout Republicans or pro-union Democrats?

And Now, A Word From Charles

“The worst, uncivil discourse in the last decade occurred in the Bush years when the president was vilified and attacked and demonized, compared to Nazis. He was called Hitler. … I do not remember times when the mainstream media wagging a finger and pulling a chin about the rise of uncivil discourse at the time. So I don't take any of this seriously.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier