I was honored to have been chosen to represent our Chamber to meet with President Obama on Tuesday, February 22 at Cleveland State. I was among 100 local business owners and executives participating in the event, which was billed as “Winning the Future: Forum on Small Business.” It was very interesting to watch the behind the scenes workings of what it takes to host a visit from the President. There was probably one TV news camera for every two delegates, an equal number of still photographers and perhaps another 100 non-participant observers. All told, there were 250 or so people in the Cleveland State practice gymnasium where we all started the day, plus however many Secret Service agents.
Once the President addressed the masses from the most well lit podium I have ever seen, complete with his obligatory teleprompter screens, we were broken into five groups, which were predetermined and shown on our credentials. I was in the Entrepreneurs group of about 20 delegates, which was moderated by SBA Director, Karen Mills. I was seated 90 degrees and four seats from the President, who arrived in our room about 5 minutes after we did.
After the President took two questions from delegates, which I suspected were scripted “softballs” since they played right in to a couple of President Obama’s favorite issues, I figured there was no way I would ever be called on. You can imagine my pleasant surprise when I was the next to be called upon.
I described to the President how our company, as well as many others whose owners I had spoken to, was troubled by the continued uncertainty in the economy. I explained that some of our concerns are based on his recently submitted budget that would double the size of the federal government in the next ten years and that spelled tax increases. At first, Mr. Obama went into an oration about seven or so tax credits that had been enacted to benefit small businesses and then spoke specifically about the small business tax credit provided in his Health Care Bill. Although I knew that our company could not qualify for the credit due to the strict size and average income per employee criteria, I did not follow him down this path.
When I asked what assurances he could provide that our taxes would not be raised, Mr. Obama said, “If Warren Buffett is not concerned about the possibility of a tax increase and continues to invest, why would you be concerned?” The President went on to tell me the size of government is not growing and that it has never been smaller since the Eisenhower’s term. Although my gut said that this was not possible, I stayed quiet on this fact as I had no specific data to refute his assertion.
Mr. Obama then told me, “You must be getting your information from the print and video media,” as my information was not correct. I responded that our company gets its information from our lawyers and public accounting firm. He quipped that “I should call your CPA firm as they are getting their information from the media.” While I was transcribing our accounting firm’s phone number from my Blackberry to a note pad, he moved on to speaking with another delegate.
After spending a half-hour with us, the President came around the room to shake everyone’s hand and offer pleasantries before he moved on to the next group. When he was a person or two from me, he turned and said in jest, “Don’t worry, Mike. We are not coming after you.”
I will not editorialize as to my feelings after the meeting. I will say, though, that my uncertainty about our economy and the specter of government interference with small businesses remains!