The one group that has fared badly in the last two years has been the private-sector middle class, particularly the roughly 25 million small firms spread across the country. Their discontent—not that of the loud-mouthed professional right or the spoiled sports on Wall Street—is what should be keeping Obama and the Democrats awake at night.
Small business should be leading us out of the recession. In the last two deep recessions during the early 1980s and the early 1990s, small firms, particularly the mom and pop shops, helped drive the recovery, adding jobs and starting companies. In contrast, this time the formation rate for new firms has been dropping for months—one reason why unemployment remains so high and new hiring remains insipid at best.
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Here’s one heat-check. A poll of small businesses by Citibank, released in May, found that over three quarters of respondents described current business conditions as “fair or poor.” More than two in five said their own business conditions had deteriorated over the past year. Only 17 percent said they expect to be hiring over the next year.
It’s not hard to see the reasons for pessimism. Entrepreneurs see bailed-out Wall Street firms and big banks recovering, while getting credit remains very difficult for the little guy. In addition, many small businesses are terrified of new mandates, in energy or health, which makes them reluctant to hire new people. Small banks—not considered “too big to fail”—fear that they will prove far less capable of meeting new regulatory guidelines than their leviathan competitors.
The small business owners I’ve spoken to—like most of the public—generally don’t seem convinced about the effectiveness of the stimulus, even if the administration claims it helped us avert an economic “catastrophe.” Barely one fourth of voters, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, think it helped the economy.
Obama’s troubles with the bigger firms are more recent. Initially, President Obama wowed the big rich, leading The New York Times to dub him “the hedge fund candidate.” By the time he won the election, he enjoyed wide support from the Business Roundtable, the Silicon Valley venture community and other titans.
Initially, big business was happy with Obama’s stimulus plan, and more or less was ready to acquiesce to both his health-care reforms and cap and trade. After all, most large companies generally provide some health coverage to their employees. For Wall Street, cap and trade represents just one more wonderful way to arbitrage their way to more profits.
Of course, some corporate titans will remain loyal to the White House. Take the lucky folks from Spanish- based Abengoa Solar, who are now getting $1.45 billion in federal loan guarantees for an Arizona solar plant that will create under 100 permanent jobs while providing expensive, subsidized energy to perhaps 70,00 homes. If this is stimulus, it’s less jarring than a decaf from Starbucks. Also let’s dismiss those on Wall Street who whine about the administration’s occasionally tough anti-business rhetoric. Wolves should have thicker skins. The Obama administration and Congress have delivered softball financial reform dressed up as major progressive change. They should be grateful, not petulant.
But there’s clearly something more serious than hurt feelings at play here. The pain felt by small businesses is hitting the big boys, too. After three straight bad years, small businesses buy a lot less stock, business services, and equipment. Big companies can hoard their money and sport big profits, but ultimately they have to sell to consumers and small firms. Maybe that’s something that the media moguls—who after all have to sell to the hoi polloi—have been picking up on, too.
This has led some Obama allies, like GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, to grouse that Obama does not like business, and vice versa. “Government and entrepreneurs are not in sync,” he explained to reporters in Europe. So, too, has Ivan Seidenberg, the head of the once Obama-friendly Business Roundtable, who denounced the administration recently for creating “an increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation here in this country.”
Among businesses of all sizes, there is now a pervasive sense that the administration does not understand basic economics.
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