When Chicago Style Politics Backfires

Oh-oh:

“One thing I can tell you: They can go out and chase me and chase the Chamber and put stuff in the newspaper. It only . . . drives more and more support. . . . You think we are going to blink because a couple of people are out shooting at us? Tell ’em to put their damn helmets on.”

Them’s fighting words, all the more so when delivered in the feisty, New York accent of U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue. The 71-year-old was recruited 12 years ago in order to revitalize a drifting business lobby. And the gregarious chief hasn’t disappointed: He’s grown the Chamber’s membership, tripled its budget, transformed its lobby shop, and increasingly thrust it into the political fray. Most recently he’s ginned up opposition to union “card check,” the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) plans to regulate carbon emissions, and parts of the proposed financial overhaul.

The Obama administration’s response has been to treat the Chamber like it has Fox News Channel: with brass knuckles. It has launched a campaign to undermine the organization by making CEOs think twice about associating with it. President Obama has openly criticized the Chamber, while adviser Valerie Jarrett has dismissed it as “old school” and acknowledged that the White House is bypassing it to work individually with CEOs.

When several major companies–including Exelon, Apple and Nike–ostentatiously quit the Chamber several weeks ago, provoking a flurry of unflattering headlines, it seemed no coincidence. Mr. Obama’s allies in the unions, the trial bar and green lobbies have targeted the Chamber, some of its members, and Mr. Donohue personally.

For a man who prides himself on working both sides of the aisle, the Chamber these days is not a fun place for Mr. Donohue. Then again, he has an Irish temper and doesn’t shrink from a brawl. At least for now, he’s showing no signs of muting the Chamber’s message.

“I did an interview a couple of week ago, and somebody said, ‘Well, the White House says that you’ve become Dr. No and you are going to lose your seat at the table.’ And I said, ‘The White House doesn’t give out the seats at the table. The seats at the table go to the people who have a rational policy, who have strong people to advance that policy, that have a strong grass-roots system, that have the assets to support their program, and that are willing to play in the political process,” Mr. Donohue remarks, sitting in his office, which looks across Lafayette Park to the White House.

“The bottom line is you can’t do this job if you are squeaky about all that stuff. My job is to represent the American business community in an honorable way, to present their interests in a way that I really think is good for them and good for this country. And,” he adds with a pointed look, “I plan to keep doing it.”

The President, turning Teddy Roosevelt’s famous adage on its head, likes to speak loudly and brandish a limp stick.

Something tells me he’s about to be schooled on why the original maxim became famous by a man who got where he is by being a doer, not a talker.

Pass the popcorn, folks. This could be fun.

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