After General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt told a private dinner of Italian business executives that he didn't believe China was willing to be a fair business partner, and that the Obama Administration's heavy regulatory approach was not conducive to helping the U.S. economy, senior White House officials, upon hearing about the comments, went into bully mode.
Immelt made his comments at dinner in Rome earlier this week and they were later reported by the Financial Times. The remarks about the Obama Administration did not include any disparagement of the president himself.
Yet, according to a contracting lobbyist for GE in Washington, senior White House officials and senior members of the Commerce and Energy Departments called Washington GE officials and corporate officers in New York.
"They [the Obama Administration] weren't happy, and wanted to know why a GE official would be making those comments," said the lobbyist. "The underlying message was that GE has dealings with the federal government. It wasn't a threat, but these folks are from Chicago."
Within hours GE released an official statement saying Immelt's comments didn't reflect the company's views. The lobbyist says he does not know if the White House demanded the statement.
The lobbyist would not identify who in the administration made the calls, but in the past senior officials like Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel and deputy Jim Messina have been known to make such calls to business executives.
"It's fairly common with this crowd," says another lobbyist, who is employed by a Fortune 50 company in Washington. "The second my boss says something that could be interpreted as anti-Obama administration, we get phone calls. They are very thin skinned. Add to that the fact that they just hate the business community, and you have a tense relationship."
The White House is particularly sensitive to the criticism because the Obama economic program has failed to deliver and business executives who early on in the administration were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt have begun to voice doubts.
"We try to help them, and how are we awarded? New regulations and badmouthing by the president when they want to play the populist card," says the corporate lobbyist.
The Immelt comments, according to a White House press source, stung, coming on the heels of comments made by companies that belong to the Business Roundtable in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget.
"There is some concern that we are losing the support of business," says the White House source. "We can't take them for granted, but the business community wasn't our base. It's an evolving relationship, but it's not evolving the right way right now."