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Is Obama Going Soft On Business?

The Obama Administration may not be as anti-business as some people fear. True, the new sheriff in town has launched a series of investigations into issues as diverse as collusion between technology firms to limit employment opportunities, interlocking directorates between Google and Apple, Google's settlement with authors on book search, has signaled interest in handset exclusivity agreements, wireless pricing and network neutrality, and has inserted itself into the broadband Internet market.

The good news, however, is that apparently not every investigation and inquiry leads to business Armageddon. The Department of Justice just gave Oracle the green light to acquire Sun, and also dropped an investigation into price fixing in the Nand flash memory chip market (which, granted was begun under the previous Administration).

Can anything be made of these last events, or are these outliers in an otherwise anti-business trend? I think the Administration has been clear about its proclivities for consumer protection and a level playing field, and has also signaled that it will intervene in certain markets (most notably telecommunications). DoJ anti-trust chief Christine Varney and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski were also chosen specifically to give their respective agencies seriously sharp teeth, and SEC head Mary Schapiro was chosen to help rehabilitate the reputation of her agency's the enforcement arm.

So the case could be made that, if anything, businesses should be wary of the new Administration's proclivity for intervention. On the other hand, the government's enforcement seems tempered by a more pragmatic bent than its predecessors, and has shown no signs thus far of playing political favorites. If it were, Google wouldn't be so obviously in the Administration's cross-hairs. And several members of the Administration have even worked to rein in Varney's trust-busting zeal.

So yes, the Administration is certainly less business-friendly than the Bush Administration, particularly if the definition of friendliness is turning a blind eye to the depradations of large companies at the expense of smaller ones. But most business executives will admit that the worst thing of all is unpredictablility, and here at least, the current Administration seems to be very clear about its intentions and what businesses need to do to keep clear of the enforcers.

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