Clinton makes friends in business Economic plan may hurt, but executives embrace it


When he was running for president, Bill Clinton had relatively little support from business outside the Silicon Valley and a few traditionally Democratic corners of Wall Street. But as President Clinton, he is being surprisingly well received in corporate board rooms across the country.

Since Mr. Clinton presented his economic blueprint to Congress and the nation 12 days ago, he has crisscrossed the country to meet with business leaders and seek their support. And so far, he seems to be getting it -- even though the program will inflict pain on many rich business executives and on their corporations.

"It behooves everybody, businessmen and average individuals alike, to really make this work,"said Roberto C. Goizueta, chairman and chief executive of Coca-Cola Co., echoing a theme voiced by many executives in interviews the last few days. "If he succeeds, we all succeed. If he fails, we all fail."

Attitudes may change as more details of the program come out, or as executives have a better chance to weigh its consequences. For now, though, many executives say that any dissatisfaction they have over parts of the program is outweighed by the leadership Mr. Clinton has shown in addressing problems like the federal budget deficit and health care.

"There are some things in the program that bite our company hard, and this is going to hurt today," said Vernon R. Loucks Jr., chairman and chief executive of Baxter International Inc., a health-care company. "But there isn't going to be a future if we don't get these things solved.

"I didn't vote for Clinton. But there is real deficit reduction in this program, and if we are disciplined enough, we could be pleasantly surprised three or four years from now."

Business leaders said their respect for Mr. Clinton began to rise at the economic summit meeting he held in Little Rock, Ark., in December. At that two-day meeting, some executives said, Mr. Clinton, then the president-elect, exhibited a broad understanding of many of the nation's economic problems.

"I have been impressed by this man," said Harold R. (Red) Poling, chairman and chief executive of Ford Motor Co., who has met with Mr. Clinton three times since the election, including at the Little Rock meeting. "In my meetings with him, he exhibited a broad knowledge of a wide range of issues. He listens very carefully and is very much a people-oriented person. He pays attention to what you are saying, and he takes the time to do it. That not only impresses me, it literally amazes me."

Mr. Clinton's theme of shared sacrifice, which he struck in his speech to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 17, has also altered many executives' attitudes.

"The talk about shared sacrifice and fairness had an awful lot of appeal to the population and to the business population," said Paul H. O'Neill, chairman and chief executive of Alcoa.

Ian Arnof, president and chief executive of First Commerce Corp., Louisiana's largest bank holding company, struck a similar theme: "My sense is they are trying to put as much on the table as they can and to spread the cost as much as they can.

His speech made a lot of sense."

Mr. Arnof said that business executives in his part of the country had paid more attention to Ross Perot's reaction to the Mr. Clinton proposals than they had to that of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

"It appears that Perot has not been unhappy with what Clinton has been doing," Mr. Arnof said. "That has given him some more credibility."

Because the White House and both houses of Congress are controlled by Democrats for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president, at this juncture business would seem to have little tactical choice but to try to work with Mr. Clinton rather than confront him.

A key test for many executives will be whether the president's health-care package alleviates what has become a millstone for many companies and to what extent it would be financed by a large tax increase.

"I know how much Intel pays per employee for our health plan every year," said Craig R. Barrett, chief operating officer of Intel Corp., the semiconductor giant. "And by simple math, it tells me it will cost $60 billion to $100 billion to provide universal health care. That is a big enough number to make me worry, and it smells like a big tax increase."

But for now, such concerns seemed to be outweighed by the Mr. Clinton persona and the president's active approach to managing the economy, which is seen by some as providing aid long overdue to the private sector.

"There is a realization among business people that they want someone who is engaged in the activities of the economy," said Gail Fosler, chief economist at the Conference Board.

"We reached the limits of laissez-faire economics after the first term of the Reagan administration. The ideology of allowing business to compete totally without government support is so in contrast with what businesses are encountering in the global marketplace that it creates a demand for a president who is engaged in making the U.S. economy the world's most competitive."

But Mr. Barrett of Intel warns: "If government can't move the regulatory environment and the bureaucracy with the speed the business world needs, the incentives this plan is offering us won't mean much."

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