The Questions Small Business Owners Ask Presidential Candidates

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Seven of the women and men running for president recently sat for briefings with Business Forward. Another four candidates are scheduled. Each briefing starts with remarks from the candidate, but the bulk of time is spent on Q&A. To date, our business leaders have asked hundreds of questions. Together, these questions provide a survey of what matters most to small business owners. We ranked the questions by topic.

Problem Solving
One out of eight questions included some kind of reference to how the candidate could move her or his plan through Congress. Our business leaders don’t care about “message.” They want to know how the candidate plans to govern. Klobuchar and Booker offered several examples of bipartisan accomplishments. Our leaders were also more likely to ask candidates how they will pay for the programs they propose. Klobuchar was particularly strong in this area, offering “pay-fors” for each element of her infrastructure plan.

Budget, Taxes, Fiscal Policy
Questions about the budget, tax reform, and fiscal policy were most common – no surprise coming from a group of business leaders. Our network worries about the deficit, but they are more concerned with the lack of long-term planning in Washington. Big solutions on infrastructure, health care, and clean energy require 10-year plans, and Washington has been operating under six-month budgets for years. Chaos in the White House has a cost, and small businesses are paying it.

Climate and Clean Energy
Climate change came next. Our network focuses on the fact that China is investing three times more in clean energy capacity and R&D than we are. Harris focused on clean energy’s relation to economic power. Booker highlighted steps he took as mayor of Newark to invest in retrofitting buildings. Klobuchar called the federal government the “loser” on climate and clean energy since it has been left on the sidelines.

Small Business Policy
Small business issues ranked fourth, with most questions concerning access to capital. Delaney, founder of two highly successful companies, presented a number of practical ideas. Harris emphasized the importance of working with small business owners to streamline federal regulations. Booker talked about his work with small businesses during his years as mayor of Newark.

Health Care
Health care, which tends to rank first in our annual surveys of business leader concerns, ranked fifth in our Solutions 2020 programming. The bulk of those questions related to drug prices or ways to balance Medicare “extra” with today’s current system. Buttigieg proposed a Medicare option that would push the private sector to compete more on pricing. Klobuchar outlined her plans for a public option and lower drug pricing. Moulton, an Iraq War veteran, continues to get his health care through the Veterans Administration.

Infrastructure
Infrastructure ranked sixth, and the range of discussion in this area presents an interesting view into the candidates. Delaney talked about infrastructure in terms of international competition, noting that America is investing half what it traditionally has (as a share of GDP) – and one-fourth as much as China. Harris made strong points on America’s clean energy infrastructure. Booker focused on ways to break through the gridlock holding back maintenance in our biggest cities. Buttigieg connected infrastructure with manufacturing jobs and higher wages.

Diversity
We’ve come a long way from the example set by President George W. Bush, who, just days after 9/11, called on Americans to look after their Muslim neighbors. On diversity, business leaders have stopped looking to Washington for leadership. As our business leaders see it, Trump fails to realize that diversity, tolerance, and inclusion are good for business. Today, work is the most diverse part of most Americans’ day – and CEOs who create inclusive teams outperform those who don’t.

Trade
Trump presents his tariffs and threats as negotiating tactics that will ultimately win a better deal, but our network looks at the uncertainty these trade wars are creating and thinks twice about investing new capital. Fortune 500 CEOs seem to agree: Business Roundtable’s quarterly survey shows CEO confidence falling for the fifth straight quarter – and capital investment is falling with it. On trade, Harris drew the connection between Trump’s poor leadership on foreign policy with the growing cost of tariffs and trade wars on American businesses. Buttigieg criticized the administration’s trade strategy with China, arguing that Trump’s tariffs won’t force China to change its economic model but would actually end up harming American workers, farmers, and consumers.

Women’s Health
Questions about abortion and birth control tended to focus on the economic pain governors in Georgia, Missouri, and Alabama are about to cause their respective states. Helping eliminate the gender gap could grow our economy by $1 trillion each year. Instead, we’re making it harder for women to plan and support their families. Several business leaders recommended boycotts of states passing abortion bans.