Far from eschewing lobbyists, aides to President-elect Barack Obama are meeting with a broad array of Washington, D.C., business operatives as they prepare to launch a new administration.
But some top business officials involved in the discussions privately grumble that they lack the kind of access they had at the beginning of the Bush administration and wonder if their agendas are being taken seriously.
In dozens of meetings, conducted over the phone and at transition headquarters in Washington, Obama advisers are querying representatives of various trade associations and industries to determine their priorities.
Weve been pleasantly surprised, said National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors President Dirk Van Dongen, a Washington lobbying veteran publicly known to President George W. Bush as my friend Dirk Van Dongen. Van Dongen said NAW officials have visited with Obama aides on economic policy and tax policy.
Others are having similar experiences. They seem to have a very substantial outreach and listening effort going on, said Dan Danner, chief lobbyist for the generally GOP-friendly National Federation of Independent Business.
Danner said small-business representatives have met with Obama officials on issues such as health care, occupational safety, the stimulus and the Small Business Administration. But its unclear what that means, he added. If it results in any kind of change or input into policy we dont know yet.
During the campaign, Obama promised to limit the influence of lobbyists, and his campaign projected an almost palpable distaste for business Washington foot soldiers. But he did not say that they would be excluded from the government or that he would decline to work with them.
Every day, we meet with organizations who present a wide range of ideas for the transition and the administration, both orally and in writing, Obama transition spokesman Nick Shapiro said in an e-mail. We believe talking with advocates and experts is a vital part of the transition.
The extent of substantive interaction varies. Some lobbyists, particularly those representing industries Obama wants to promote, report numerous contacts and substantive meetings.
But other K Street veterans report a shocking new reality.
Top business officials accustomed to red-carpet treatment in the Bush White House say they must stand in line in the cold outside transition headquarters along with people they dont recognize, waiting to be cleared to meet with Obama staffers they dont know and who dont always appear to understand their issues. One veteran business official lamented that the only Obama official he has recognized so far is former Environmental Protection Agency Director Carol Browner along with lobbying foes for labor and environmental organizations he has seen milling around or standing in the queue.
We were part of the team during the Bush transition, reminisced another top K Street player. The business lobby was not pro-Obama, he acknowledged. And for good reason, if you look at the campaign rhetoric.
Several business representatives wondered whether they were involved in a check the box scam designed to show inclusiveness rather than practice it.
You get your five-minute elevator presentation, said one top industry lobbyist who said his meetings have been devoid of meaty discussion. They say nothing. Its a pure note-taking exercise. Will they be able to say they reached out? Sure.