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C.E.O.s Are Frustrated With Biden. That Doesn’t Mean They Embrace Trump.

Why Many CEOs Still Support Biden Over Trump

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When the White House chief of staff, Jeffrey Zients, met with dozens of top executives in Washington this month, he encountered a familiar list of corporate complaints about President Biden.

The executives at the Business Roundtable, a group representing some of the country’s biggest corporations, objected to Mr. Biden’s proposals to raise taxes. They questioned the lack of business representation in the Cabinet. They bristled at what they called overregulation by federal agencies.

While the meeting was not antagonistic, it was indicative of three and a half years of executive grousing about Mr. Biden. Business leaders have criticized his remarks on “corporate greed” and his appearance on a union picket line. They chafe at the actions of officials he has appointed — particularly the head of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, who has moved to block a series of corporate mergers.

A number of prominent figures in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street — including the venture capitalists David Sacks and Marc Andreessen, and the hedge fund magnate Kenneth Griffin — have grown increasingly vocal in their criticism of Mr. Biden, their praise of former President Donald J. Trump, or both.

Still, that shift mostly reflects movement among executives who already supported Republican politicians but had not previously embraced Mr. Trump. There is little evidence of a major shift in allegiance among executives away from Mr. Biden and toward Mr. Trump.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale School of Management professor who is in frequent contact with corporate leaders, said most chief executives he had spoken to preferred Mr. Biden to Mr. Trump, “some of them enthusiastically and some of them biting their lip and holding their nose.”

Executives who have donated to Democrats in the past generally continue to do so: Filings released by the Federal Election Commission last week showed donations to Mr. Biden’s campaign committees from business leaders including Marissa Mayer, the former Yahoo chief, and Brad Smith, the Microsoft president — both of whom recently hosted Biden fund-raisers — and from Mark Cuban, the tech investor.

And despite subtle signs of waning enthusiasm for Mr. Biden among business elites, neither the White House nor the Biden campaign seem particularly concerned. They see their policies on taxation and regulation as effective and broadly popular. And they cite record corporate profits under Mr. Biden’s presidency.

Still, the administration has taken steps to improve its relationship with business leaders. In February, a team including Mr. Zients and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen divided up a list of more than 100 chief executives to contact, White House officials said. In May, the president met with corporate leaders including executives of Marriott, United Airlines and Xerox.

Administration officials say feedback from executives has led to policy shifts, as when the Environmental Protection Agency softened new requirements to reduce car and truck emissions after hearing from automakers.

“We’re not going to agree with businesses on everything, but what we’re going to do is, we’re talking to them,” Wally Adeyemo, the deputy Treasury secretary, who frequently meets with business leaders, said in an interview.

The business world’s frustrations with Mr. Biden partly come down to style and rhetoric. Mr. Biden has harangued companies for “ripping people off” by raising prices and shrinking product portions, and he has chastised chief executives for lavish pay packages. He has aligned himself with organized labor more often and more explicitly than past Democratic presidents.

Mr. Biden’s rhetoric has offended even some otherwise sympathetic business leaders. Mr. Sonnenfeld of Yale called it “needlessly off-putting” and “self-destructive.” But it may resonate with the public. In polls, Americans routinely blame large corporations for inflation, and majorities in both parties say they view big business negatively overall.

Beyond atmospherics, a number of Biden administration policies have grated on business leaders. Mr. Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, from 21 percent (though still below the 35 percent that prevailed until the tax cuts signed by Mr. Trump), and to eliminate various industry-specific tax breaks. He has also proposed raising taxes on wealthy individuals — a group that includes many executives and their biggest investors. And his administration has issued or proposed stricter rules on environmental protection, worker safety and consumer rights.

Many of those policies are unsurprising for a Democratic president — as are the complaints they draw from business leaders. Research published in 2022 found that about 70 percent of top executives at S&P 500 companies identified themselves as Republicans.

But in some areas, the Biden White House and its regulatory appointees have been more aggressive than other recent Democratic administrations.

“I think the regulatory agenda that we’ve seen in some areas in the current administration has been troubling,” said Brad Close, the president of the National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business advocacy organization, echoing concerns expressed privately by many businesses, both large and small.

Individual industries have their own complaints. Airlines are upset by Mr. Biden’s efforts to crack down on “junk fees” and to require refunds for delayed flights. Pharmaceutical companies have sued to block the administration’s efforts to negotiate lower prices for drugs for older adults. Nonunionized construction companies are furious about rules requiring agreements between contractors and unions on large federal projects.

“That’s a spear in our heart,” said Milton Graugnard, executive vice president at Cajun Industries, an industrial construction firm in Baton Rouge, La. “It’s damning and damaging to our industry,” added Mr. Graugnard, a Trump donor in the past, “and I know it’s going to drive costs up.”

Still, other industries have praised the administration, particularly for the hundreds of billions of dollars in investment in infrastructure, green energy and domestic manufacturing resulting from legislation it helped enact.

“Our relationship with the Biden administration is a very productive one, especially as it relates to shared policy priorities,” said Kip Eideberg, senior vice president of government relations for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, which represents companies that build construction and agricultural equipment.

Mr. Eideberg criticized the administration on other issues, like trade policy, where Mr. Biden has maintained tariffs, first imposed under Mr. Trump, that make imported parts and materials costlier. But he said the Biden administration had been far more open to consultation than the Obama administration, which he said seemed to have “very little interest in proactively engaging with the business community.”

The Biden administration argues that whatever different industries might say about their policies, businesses appear to be backing Mr. Biden in a far more important way: with investments.

The quarterly increase in investment under Mr. Biden has been comparable to the trend under Mr. Trump before the pandemic — even though the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates by five percentage points during Mr. Biden’s presidency, a move that typically depresses investment.

Some of Mr. Biden’s business-world backers cite a more fundamental reason for their support: Mr. Trump’s presidency was characterized by frequent policy reversals and near-constant uncertainty, they say. Many are also concerned about his approach to immigration and trade, and about the possibility that Mr. Trump could seek to undermine the independence of the Federal Reserve.

At the session with the Business Roundtable executives, who met with Mr. Trump the same day, Mr. Zients stressed Mr. Biden’s commitment to stability and the rule of law.

“A lot of them — and I do this for a living every day, work with C.E.O.s in big companies — a lot of them view this as a choice between predictability and clarity on the one hand and unpredictability and chaos on the other,” said Roger Altman, senior chairman of the investment bank Evercore, who held Treasury positions under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Steven Cheung, the Trump campaign’s communications director, responded: “President Trump continues to be warmly received by the business community and commended for his policy proposals on deregulation and tax cuts. The clear contrast is a pro-growth economy that benefited all Americans under President Trump versus Joe Biden’s failed record of skyrocketing inflation and business-killing mandates.”

The most potent anger from the business community toward the current administration is often directed at regulators, particularly Gary Gensler, the Securities and Exchange Commission chair, and Ms. Khan of the Federal Trade Commission.

Vinod Khosla, a prominent venture capitalist who played host to Mr. Biden on a fund-raising swing to Silicon Valley last month, excoriated Ms. Khan at a conference this month as “not a rational human being.”

But Mr. Khosla is not abandoning his support for Mr. Biden.

“Lina is not the most important part of the Biden presidency,” he said in an email. “And Trump is far worse than Lina in 10 dimensions.”

Keith Rabois, Mr. Khosla’s colleague at the firm Khosla Ventures, sees things differently. Mr. Rabois, a longtime entrepreneur and investor, is a conservative, but he did not support Mr. Trump in 2016 or 2020. Now he is doing so, in part because of Ms. Khan’s approach, but primarily because of what he saw as Mr. Biden’s lackluster support for Israel and Jewish students on college campuses.

Mr. Khosla’s and Mr. Rabois’s divergent conclusions — despite their shared criticisms — reflect a larger pattern. Business leaders who have supported Mr. Biden in the past mostly still do, though some more quietly or with more reservations than before. And some Republican executives who were once skeptical of Mr. Trump or backed him quietly have become more public in their support.

Charles Elson, the founding director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, said many of those who still preferred Mr. Biden had become more quiet in their support — not necessarily because of his policies but because of a sense that Mr. Trump could win.

“They’ve just stopped talking,” Mr. Elson said. “That’s all. They realized it’s too close to call, it’s better to say nothing. You never can be attacked for what you didn’t say.”

Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.



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