Instead, President Donald Trump is finding that business leaders have been an irritant instead of an ally of his nascent presidency. Tech firms have slammed his executive order calling for a travel ban for certain refugees and residents of Muslim-majority nations, with 127 such firms signing onto an amicus brief to stop the order in court. Others are critical of his talk against trade, including promises to review President Barack Obama’s thawing of relations with Cuba.
On social and workplace issues, Trump is also facing clashes with big corporations. Pricey Super Bowl ads included strong corporate messages in favor of equal pay (Trump has opposed equal pay legislation, and has said women will earn more if they do “as good a job” as men), immigration and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights (the president has a mixed record on the topic).
And while Trump has surely pleased the business community with his moves to ease financial services regulation, experts say he is behind the times when it comes to the modern mission of American business: access to markets and top-notch talent around the world, as well as social policies that keep the workforce happy and productive.
“I think there are at least two dimensions I can discern. One, we’re in a global labor market, and to be competitive today, you’ve got to get the best, no matter where in the world they are from,” says Harvard Business School professor David B. Yoffie. “Second, a lot of CEOs are not just thinking about relative profits or competitiveness. They’re thinking about the health and culture of their workforce. Their workforce, to a large degree, seems to be in favor of open migration, having the opportunity to have colleagues from all over the world.”
Big business still maintains a general agreement on conservative policies Trump supports, such as lower corporate taxes and less regulation. But on issues involving global economics, such as international trade agreements and the recent opening of relations with Cuba, business leaders are worried.
“I’ve heard a lot of concerns about it from the business community — is he going to jack the deficit way up? Is he going to start a trade war?” says Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “I’m sure that on immigration, they were thinking about it one way and they weren’t even thinking about the consequences. What does that do to our technology industry? What does that do to our workforce?”
“They weren’t really thinking about that, and I think it’s causing concerns,” Kaine adds.
On Cuba, Trump campaigned by promising to get tough on the communist island, even if that meant closing the new U.S. embassy in Havana. Last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the White House was “in the midst of a full review of all U.S. policies towards Cuba.”
That approach appeals — though decreasingly so — to some Cuban-Americans in swing-state Florida. But it is frustrating to American business that are eager to invest in the Caribbean island.
Arizona Sen. Flake, part of a contingency of Republicans who believe financial engagement with Cuba will help democracy there, says it would be a mistake to re-impose limits on travel and remittances. A full 25 percent of the Cuban workforce is now in the private sector, Flake says, largely because of Obama’s easement of restrictions.
“Turning back will really take a lot of that away, and I don’t think we should,” Flake says, adding that he is hopeful Trump will abandon campaign rhetoric in favor of “moving forward” with Cuba.
On the domestic front, corporate American culture has changed — and not just in the hoodie-wearing tech community, analysts say. While Trump, as a real estate executive and reality TV star, presented an almost caricatured image of the tough top-down manager focused on profit-and-loss statements, many large U.S. business have taken a broader perspective, one that takes employee needs and views more into account, experts say.
That has made much of corporate America an unlikely partner with progressives on social issues and worker benefits. While Congress and the White House have been unable to agree on how — or whether — to help Americans balance family with work, pay for college or train for jobs with bigger growth potential, many U.S. companies have stepped up to fill the void, workplace experts note.
Amazon offers 95 percent reimbursement for entry-level employees to train for jobs someplace else, such as in nursing or computers. The theory is that the program will create loyal, lifetime customers as well as a happier and more productive team.
Many companies now offer financial assistance for adoption, as well as paid leave to care for the new family member . Others help employees pay back suffocating student loan debt.
“Organizations are starting to become more empathetic with their employees, treating them as individuals,” says Rae Shanahan, chief strategy officer at Businessolver, a company benefits administrator. “It’s just logical. It’s extremely important for recruitment and retention.”
On immigration and LGBT issues, too, boardrooms are looking at their bottom lines through the lens of their workers, who may not want to work somewhere that doesn’t welcome immigrants or LGBT people.
The business community has pressured several states to back off of legislation requiring people to use the public bathroom assigned to their birth sex. The effort convinced Georgia to abandon such a policy, and contributed heavily to the defeat of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who refused to retreat on the issue.
“They’re doing so from the perspective that, in no uncertain terms, this is bad for business,” says Deena Fidas, director of the workplace equality program at the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights group.
Trump declined to sign a draft executive order that would have reversed an Obama order requiring government contractors to adhere to LGBT anti-discrimination rules; activists worry that Trump will create an exemption for religious-based groups. However, Fidas notes, the same companies and organizations that signed onto amicus briefs in favor of LGBT rights are also signing onto briefs against the migration ban.
There’s a “pivot from the subjective conversation about values and social issues,” Fidas sys. Now, it’s “a more objective conversation about what type of legal environment will hinder the business community or actually foster greater investment.”