Feb. 7, 2011— -- President Obama took a short walk from the White House across Lafayette Park to address the US Chamber of Commerce, but his remarks were meant to go a long way toward mending strained relations between his administration and the business community.
This was the first time the president has addressed the members of the Chamber of Commerce. The speech comes as the White House makes concerted efforts to reach out to the business community at a time when both say that their primary focus is on job creation and economic growth.
Obama's tone was cooperative, noting that the government and business can and must work together.
"I understand the challenges you face. I understand you are under incredible pressure to cut costs and keep your margins up," he said. "I understand the significance of your obligations to your shareholders, and the pressures that are created by quarterly reports. I get it."
Obama implored American businesses to "get in the game" and invest some of the $2 trillion on their balance sheets to kick-start job creation.
"So if I've got one message, my message is: Now is the time to invest in America," he said. "I know that many of you have told me that you're waiting for demand to rise before you get off the sidelines and expand, and that with millions of Americans out of work, demand's risen more slowly than any of us would like. We're in this together."
As a sign of his commitment to that effort, the president pledged to "go anywhere, any time, to be a booster for American businesses, American workers and American products."
"And I don't charge a commission," he said to laughter from the otherwise subdued audience.
The idea of Obama delivering a speech to the Chamber seemed unthinkable just a few months ago, given the heated rhetoric between the two sides.
Obama and the Chamber butted heads throughout the fall campaign season over the use of foreign money in American elections. Chamber President Tom Donohue did not shy away from attacking the White House over the health care law and financial reform for the first two years of Obama's term.
But in the lead up to the speech, both the White House and the Chamber emphasized the areas where they agree and their shared understanding of the need to focus on job creation.
Tita Freeman, vice president of communications and strategy for the Chamber, said that because the Chamber never considered itself to be "fueding" with the White House last fall, this speech is not about mending relationships.
"We've supported the president on some things and we've disagreed with him on others. That will continue to be the case," Freeman said, "But we have always invited an open dialogue and we're pleased that the president has accepted our invitation to speak to us."
Freeman outlined several key items that the Chamber wants to hear the president address in his remarks today: finalizing trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Columbia; commitment to regulatory restraint and reform; commitment to rebuilding America's infrastructure; forging a serious discussion on comprehensive tax reform.
Obama hit most of those points and touted steps his administration has taken on regulatory reform.
"I've ordered a government-wide review. And if there are rules on the books that are needlessly stifling job creation and economic growth, we will fix them," he said.
But he also defended regulation, noting that American businesses must understand that the government must into place "basic standards that are necessary to protect the American people from harm or exploitation."
"Not every regulation is bad. Not every regulation is burdensome on business," the president said. "A lot of the regulations that are out there are things that all of us welcome in our lives. Few of us would want to live in a society without rules that keep our air and water clean, that give consumers the confidence to do everything from investing in financial markets to buying groceries."
The Chamber became a chief bogeyman for the president and Democrats last fall on the campaign trail. In October, Obama, his top administration officials and many Democrats pounced on a report by the liberal group ThinkProgress that pointed out that the Chamber had some foreign funding sources.
It is illegal to use foreign money for political activity and Democrats used the report to try to force the Chamber to reveal its donor list.
"Groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won't tell you where the money for their ads come from," Obama said at the time. "The American people deserve to know who's trying to sway their elections….It could be the oil industry, the insurance industry, Wall Street - you'll never know. Their lips are sealed, but the floodgates are open."
The White House kept up this drum beat for weeks, using this as a main talking point before the November elections.
"Just disclose where your money is coming from and that will end all the questions," said then-senior White House adviser David Axelrod. "The fact is they are spending $75 million in this campaign and they will not disclose where one dime is coming from."
The Chamber pushed back, saying they segregate the foreign money from the domestic political activity.
"We're under no obligation as any organization or association in the United States is, to divulge who its members are, who its contributors are," said Chamber Executive VP Bruce Josten last fall. "We are under legal obligations to account and have an accounting method that ensures that in our accounts that funds or any aspect of money that comes from a foreign source is not in any way utilized in any political sense. We ensure that we do that," he said.
White House Makes Job Creation Top Priority for 2011
Beyond the speech at the Chamber today, there have been other signals in recent weeks that the White House is looking to mend fences with the business community, including staffing decisions and discussions with business leaders. Top executives have complained in recent months that the relationship between them and the White House has been strained
In December, Obama met with nearly two dozen American CEO's with a clear message: start investing capital and start hiring.
"I want to dispel any notion we want to inhibit your success," President Obama told 20 CEOs , according to a source in the room. "We want to be boosters because when you do well, America does well."
When he announced his selection of William Daley as his new chief of staff, Obama was clear on what he was looking for.
"He possesses a deep understanding of how jobs are created and how to grow our economy," he said of the JP Morgan Chase & Co. executive. Daley, a former Commerce Secretary in the Clinton administration, brought to the White House business ties, which critics of the administration have complained were absent.
Last month Chamber President Donohue applauded the president's choice of Daley to lead the West Wing.
"This is a guy that understands the issues, understands the players, knows the players and knows how to make it work," he said.
Donahue also noted in his annual "State of American Business" address last month that there was a "new tone out of the White House" that along with the compromise to extend the Bush tax cuts in December and progress on the South Korea free trade agreement, "addressed some of the business community's immediate concerns."
With job creation and the economy still the top priorities for Americans, the White House has said that it will be a top focus for the president this year.
Last Friday the Labor Department reported that the U.S. economy added 36,000 jobs in January, far fewer than the 146,000 jobs that economists had projected would be created. The unemployment rate fell to a two-year low of 9 percent.
In his State of the Union address last month, Obama struck an optimistic tone on the economy.
"We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again," he said.
But the president offered few specifics on how he intended create new jobs. He outlined five key areas where he said the United States needs to move forward and Washington needs to make significant and immediate strides: innovation, education, infrastructure, tackling the national debt and government reform.
Freeman said the Chamber wants to hear more specifics on the Obama Administration's job creation plan.
ABC News' Jon Garcia contributed to this report.