Four of the most powerful business leaders in America arrived at the White House one day last month for lunch with President Barack Obama, sitting down in his private dining room just steps from the Oval Office.
But even for powerful CEOs, there’s no such thing as a free lunch: White House staffers collected credit card numbers for each executive and carefully billed them for the cost of the meal with the president.
The White House defended the unusual move as a way to avoid conflicts of interest. But the Bush administration didn’t charge presidential guests for meals, one former official said, and at least one etiquette expert found the whole thing unseemly – suggesting it was a serious breach of protocol.
“I’m sure they have their political reasons for doing that, but I think it’s not what quote, hospitality, unquote is all about,” said Letitia Baldrige, who headed Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House staff in the early 1960s. “We’ve got to relax about this. To have people to the White House and worry about the price of things is laughable.”
“I don’t know what the menu was, but I’m sure it wasn’t braised pheasant,” she said.
The White House did not say what was served for lunch or how much the attendees were charged. A spokeswoman said White House staff collected the credit card numbers separately from the event.
Around the table with Barack Obama that afternoon were Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox Corporation; Muhtar Kent, CEO of The Coca-Cola Company; AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson; and Honeywell International CEO Dave Cote.
“From time to time, White House guests are asked to reimburse for their meals, the reasons include ensuring there is no conflict or appearance of a conflict,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “That is consistent with our tough ethics rules and we will continue the practice when appropriate.”
The former senior Bush administration official said meals with the president were covered by official entertainment expenses that fall under the Executive Residence budget or the White House’s annual account. But the Bush administration was so sensitive about appearing cozy with corporate America that another former high-ranking official cannot recall a single instance of President Bush lunching with CEOs in the White House.
For Obama, the politics of dining with CEOs is much different: In the midst of the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, most Americans would likely approve of the president sitting down with the leading figures of the private sector to develop strategies to fight the recession.
Still, the decision to bill the CEOs for their meal shows the political sensitivity of relations between the commander in chief and corporate chieftains. The lunch meeting did not show up on Obama’s public schedule and was largely overlooked by the press.
The low-visibility session was part of an ongoing and concerted White House effort to maintain constant contact with the nation’s top business leaders. The corporate outreach effort, spearheaded by Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, gives the president the opportunity to hear private first-hand accounts from the executives who are fighting their way through the global economic recession.
“This is something that happens on an ongoing basis,” Jarrett told Politico. “A lot of CEOs have now had the opportunity to sit around the table with the president.” Jarrett said some meetings include a meal, some are held in the Roosevelt room, and others are held outside the White House, at restaurants across Washington, DC. The offsite dinners include Jarrett and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel but are not attended by the president.