Obama pitches aid for struggling small businesses

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by Darlene Superville

WASHINGTON (AP)—President Barack Obama’s bid to sell his economic agenda and re-energize voters picks up in politically significant New Hampshire, where he will again promote an idea to free up money for small businesses that are hurting.

PresidentObama
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA

Obama will travel to Nashua, N.H., to draw attention to a proposal highlighted in his State of the Union address last week: funneling $30 billion to local banks so they can lend small businesses money they need to grow their enterprises and create jobs.

The trip comes two weeks after Democrats suffered the stunning loss of a Senate seat in neighboring Massachusetts, and the president is working to shore up his party’s standing heading into the November midterm elections to avoid heavy losses in the House and the Senate, both of which are under Democratic control.

In New Hampshire, Obama will tour a local business and hold his second town hall in six days, a format that allows him to show engagement with the public and counter a sense of “remoteness,” as he has put it, that people have had with his policy agenda.

“Jobs will be our No. 1 focus in 2010,” he said in excerpts of his prepared remarks, which the White House released early. “And we’re going to start where most new jobs do—with small businesses. These are companies that begin in basements and garages when an entrepreneur takes a chance on his dream, or a worker decides it’s time she became her own boss.”

The $30 billion in loan financing would come from money repaid by big banks that got help from the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, the vastly unpopular bailout for those on Wall Street whose actions led to the economic downturn.

That $30 billion would be used to create the Small Business Lending Fund, separate and distinct from TARP, according to two senior administration officials who outlined the program on condition of anonymity before Obama’s announcement.

The fund would be open to banks with assets of $10 billion or less. About 8,000 such small and community banks would be eligible.

Banks that increase lending to small businesses would see reductions for up to five years in the dividend tax rate they owe the government.

Obama was calling on Congress to pass legislation creating the new fund, one of several ideas he has promoted recently to help small businesses. He has called for tax credits for those small businesses that hire new workers or raise wages, and for eliminating all capital gains taxes on small-business investment. He also has proposed tax incentives for all businesses to invest in new plants and equipment.

White House officials said the new fund will bolster banks’ balance sheets and enable them to make more loans to small businesses.

But many in the banking industry say lending is not hampered by a lack of capital. Even well-capitalized banks are having trouble finding creditworthy borrowers. Small businesses also are reluctant to borrow money in a sluggish economy for expansion or improvements.

White House officials argued that banks capital reserves are one of several factors limiting credit. They said it will become more important as the economy improves.

The proposed new lending program is a refined version of a plan the administration first announced in October.

But the administration ran into resistance from bankers who believed they would be stigmatized if they accepted TARP funds. The Treasury Department has worked since then to try to make the program acceptable and to remove some of the requirements that applied to banks that accepted TARP money during the financial crisis.

Fixing the economy is the nation’s top worry and the centerpiece of Obama’s efforts. The degree to which he is successful will play out in states like New Hampshire, where two House seats and a Senate seat are in play in November.

Obama lost the New Hampshire presidential primary in 2008 to Hillary Rodham Clinton, now his secretary of state, but won the state comfortably in the general election over Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Obama last ventured to New Hampshire in August—the town hall that time was in Portsmouth—to promote health care legislation at a time when tempers were hot in places around the country. He found a friendly audience that day, although the health care reform effort itself has recently become far less certain.

(Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Jim Kuhnhenn and Daniel Wagner contributed to this report.)

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