Barack, labor leaders swap ideas at confab

Labor and business cartels laud Organizer-in-Chief

Barack Obama traded ideas on energy, healthcare and schools with business, labor and academic leaders on Thursday at a campaign forum in Pittsburgh. The group included the chief executive officers of General Motors and United States Steel Corp., along with the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Service Employees International Union.

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Also on the panel was retired Gen. James Jones, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander who is close to Obama's Republican rival John McCain but has been mentioned as a possible running mate for the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

Obama opened the forum at Carnegie Mellon University by laying out his energy, healthcare and education agenda, then asked each of 13 panelists to share their thoughts on those topics.

"If you were setting federal policy, what do you think would be the most effective approach to ensure these exciting innovations are moving rapidly?" Obama asked Vinod Khosla after the venture capitalist talked about a "radical revolution" in renewable energy technology.

Investment in university research, Khosla responded, along with stable policy and making people believe it can happen.

Steve Case, the former chairman and chief executive officer of America Online, reminded Obama that government-funded research spurred development of the Internet and then the private marketplace took over.

"I believe there's some lessons that you learn from that approach," Case said. (Introducing himself, Case said: "My real claim to fame is that I went to high school with Barack Obama in Hawaii.")

Andy Stern, President of the Service Employees International Union, told Obama: "What we really need is just to change the old Washington ways where we can't get anything done."

"The old idea that business and labor can't work together for the common good is outdated," said Stern, whose union supports Obama.

G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., the chairman and CEO of General Motors, told Obama that the country should diversify its energy sources as quickly as possible, saying biofuels would be the quickest to develop.

After the event, Wagoner told reporters that Obama had recently "reflected a much more detailed understanding of what's going on in the industry" than he did in a Detroit speech last year. Obama had faulted car makers in the speech for fighting tougher fuel efficiency standards, among other things.

But Wagoner was careful not to take sides between Obama and McCain.

"My sense is both candidates have a pretty good understanding that business and innovation is an important part of the success of the American economy," Wagoner said.

Also on the panel were Lael Brainard, vice president of the Brookings Institution; Los Angeles real estate mogul and philanthropist Eli Broad; Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone; Susan Castillo, Superintendent of Public Instruction at the Oregon Department of Education; Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT; former Transportation Secretary Federico Peña; John P. Surma, the chairman and CEO of United States Steel Corp; and Harold Varmus, President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.


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