By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
It seems fitting that Avis, the “We Try Harder” car rental firm, advertises on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce website, including on the page that features bios of top execs. Because nobody tries harder to promote the cause of America’s companies than the chamber’s President Thomas Donohue. “I love what I do,” says the white-haired 71-year-old. “I am more consumed than I have ever been because there’s so much going on.”
If Donohue seems winded lately, it might be because of the chamber’s tussling with the Obama administration. Several times they’ve nearly come to blows, as when the chamber said small businesses would choke on the costs of healthcare reform. Says Donohue, “I think there is an absence of people in the White House who understand business compared to previous administrations of both parties.” Add to that his group’s bid to push policy changes that could create 20 million new jobs, and it’s enough to tire any lobbyist.
But Donohue has an additional job: boosting fair trade with China, where he’s visited seven times in the last eight years. Just back from Shanghai, where he pressed China’s leaders to keep its markets open to American firms and nix “buy China only” policies. Donohue says that the country looks like America of the 1940s and 1950s. “There is great optimism, energy, and ambition there,” he says. “We need more optimism, energy, and ambition here to get back to where we were.”
He offers an example: In the 2 1/2 years since he last visited Shanghai, rapid construction has created a whole new city. “They’re building another New York,” he says. And as with the quick economic development in other Asian nations, American businesses need to get a piece of that action while fighting moves by those countries to wall out foreign businesses.
When he travels, Donohue is a workaholic. “Generally,” he says, “what I like to do is visit with the leaders, talk to the businessmen.” But, he adds, “I’d like to get a little sleep.” On his last trip to China, he visited the site of the famous Terracotta Army from 210 B.C. “It was one of the most startling things I ever did in my whole life. Holy mackerel!” he says. “I bought a stone one, and I put it in my office to remind me of what a sophisticated civilization these people had so long ago.”
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.