WASHINGTON – The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the group that represents the interests of most of Minnesota's major businesses, laid out a detailed set of expectations for last week's State of the Union address. Few were realized.
Neil Bradley, the chamber's executive vice president and chief policy officer, politely referred to much of what happened as "missed opportunities."
What the chamber, and by extension the business community in Minnesota and across the country, sought most from the president and Congress was a tone of cooperation.
What it got was Republican re-election chants and an unceremonious shredding of the president's speech by the Democratic speaker of the House.
It was political theater that had Bradley grasping for signs of hope behind the scenes.
"We would like to see Republicans and Democrats returning to the things we need," Bradley said in an interview. "It was disappointing because they had a chance at the State of the Union. Increasingly, you have to differentiate between the day-to-day work being done on issues and made-for-media events."
President Donald Trump hit some high points for business interests stressing reduction in regulatory roadblocks. He briefly mentioned an infrastructure plan to rebuild worn-out roads, bridges and water systems.
"With this economy there is no excuse for not passing an infrastructure bill," said Charlie Weaver, who directs the Minnesota Business Partnership, a group of the state's top CEOs.
Still, Weaver said his members remain frustrated by "partisan fights that paralyze" lawmakers and the president and keep them from getting things done.
"People have been punished for compromising for the last few years," Weaver noted.
Very little of the State of the Union ceremony signaled to Bradley, Weaver and other business people that the legislative and executive branches could work together.
"I think all around — both Republicans and Democrats — it would have been nice to have seen them leave the political fighting for the campaign trail," Bradley said.
Beyond partisanship and gridlock, some fundamental differences separate the business community from the sentiments expressed in the State of the Union. The chamber especially wants an end to tariffs that it believes caused a recession in American manufacturing in 2019.
What it heard from Trump in the State of the Union was a statement that tariffs on Chinese imports produced a great trade deal, while adding billions of dollars to the federal treasury.
Bradley pointed out that American businesses and consumers paid and continue to pay those billions, not the Chinese.
"Threats of additional tariffs," he said, "only hurt more. We need to focus on trade, not tariffs."
The chamber wants reform that increases the flow of legal immigrants into the country in order to fix a structural workforce shortage in which there are not enough job seekers to fill existing jobs.
In his speech, the president talked about an immigration system "based on merit."
"There was," said Weaver, "no discussion about how to improve legal immigration."
A package of 35 energy bills endorsed by the chamber awaits consideration in the Senate. This is the business community's "innovation agenda." Marty Durbin, president of the chamber's Global Energy Institute, called it something that could "make a difference." The bills deal with climate and energy, stressing things like carbon capture and sequestration, emissions reduction, and battery storage that lends itself to the development of electric vehicles.
In the State of the Union, the president talked about oil and natural gas when he mentioned energy independence.
The innovation agenda has been moving through Senate committees on a bipartisan basis, Bradley said. "We hope that can carry over to the Senate floor for action."
As big as the disconnect seems between what American business interests want and what the president offered at the State of the Union, chances of a wholesale defection from Trump during this election year are not likely, said Steve Billet, a former AT&T lobbyist and now a professor in George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.
A 2017 Republican tax plan that permanently cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% was a big enough financial windfall to keep the business community on board with the president, Billet believes.
Add to that the cutback in business regulation the White House has emphasized and "Trump thinks he's done all he needs to do to lock down the business community," Billet said. "Look at the money he's getting [for his re-election campaign]; he's raking it in."
The most viable Democratic foil to this strategy would be Michael Bloomberg, a moderate former Republican, Billet thinks.
At the chamber, Bradley does not talk about candidates. He talks about action.
"For this president, as for any president in an election year, what matters most is the strength of the economy," he said.
The economy is now strong, Bradley said. But "there are policy decisions that if done wrong will derail it."