GWEN IFILL: The Obama administration took steps this week to rein in big businesses when it comes to taxes and mergers.
First, the Treasury Department issued tough new rules that make it harder for one company merging with another to lower its taxes by taking a foreign address. The president spoke out against the so-called inversions, saying they lead to one of the most insidious tax loopholes.
A day later, the drug companies Pfizer and Allergan called off a $160 billion deal. Plus, the Obama Justice Department is trying to block oil services giant Halliburton from merging with its rival Baker Hughes. Other proposed mergers may also be in trouble.
Jim Tankersley writes about this for The Washington Post.
JIM TANKERSLEY, The Washington Post: Thanks for having me.
GWEN IFILL: So, give me a sense of whether this is a conscious strategic use by the administration on tax policy to crack down on business.
JIM TANKERSLEY: Well, in this particular case, it's absolutely the administration saying, this is a practice in the corporate world that we don't like, and we're going to use tax policy to stop it. It looks very tailored in particular to mergers like the Pfizer one, which, I mean, it's very rare that you see a rule get announced on one day and a merger get called off the next, but that's what they have pulled off here.
GWEN IFILL: So, one of the things that they — when we talk about this, though, for instance, the administration decided they wanted to make financial advisers more accountable to clients.
JIM TANKERSLEY: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Is that part of that same strategy, or is that different?
JIM TANKERSLEY: I think what we're seeing are two things.
Over time, we have seen the president sort of shed his inhibitions about taking positions that might be opposed by the business community. He doesn't seem to really care too much anymore if he's being called anti-business. So, we see like sort of string of decisions this week that we have mentioned that are all in that vein.
And the business community has howled, and he hasn't really let that bother him. Shorter term, what we're seeing, though, is the president, I think, is thinking about his legacy, and he knows right now we're in a time, a very populist time, anti-corporate time in the America in the campaign.
And so by personally getting out and announcing details of the inversions rule, making the case for it, for example, this week, he's trying to cement that rule in the public's mind, so that the next president doesn't change it or walk it back.
GWEN IFILL: It does seem like we're in a different time when it comes to taking shots at big business, and that on both the Republican and the Democratic side of this 2016 campaign, that seems to be more acceptable.
JIM TANKERSLEY: Absolutely.
We're used to it, I think, to a degree in Democratic primaries for president. The business community tends to take a lot of flak, and then oftentimes candidates tack a little more toward a pro-business approach in a general election.
That's not entirely been true this time. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders especially have been very populist. They both talked about corporate behavior, bad behavior that they want to see changed as president. But the big change is the Republican side.
Donald Trump is talking about things that he doesn't — companies being unpatriotic in moving jobs overseas. He's talking down…
GWEN IFILL: Hedge funds. He has talked about tax evasion for hedge fund managers.
JIM TANKERSLEY: Yes.
So, it's this moment of anger. It's the sense for a lot of voters on both sides of the aisle that, hey, corporate America is lining its pockets, but I'm not getting ahead. And whether the policies that the candidates are talking about would actually, you know, speak to that problem or not, they are definitely channeling this moment of the politics, and I think the president is kind of piggybacking on that a little bit.
GWEN IFILL: Bernie Sanders, who has probably gone farther than any of the candidates right now in the race to hammering away at this, was scolded today by the president of GE for saying they were examples of — I'm paraphrasing here — corporate greed.
What is the pushback coming from the corporate world?
JIM TANKERSLEY: Well, the pushback, and part of it is to say, hey, wait a second, we create a lot of jobs. We do a lot of economic activity.
The GE op-ed which ran in my newspaper basically said, look, we have a big plant in Vermont. We'd love it if you visit, by the way. You have never done that. And we create a lot of good-paying jobs for people of the type you say you want to have happen. So, don't denigrate us just because we have to try to play by the rules like everybody else with taxes.
Now, the response to that, that Bernie Sanders and others have made is, these are companies that do a lot of things to try to avoid paying federal corporate income taxes in particular, and they don't — or they move production overseas to find lower-cost labor. And that upset people who say, oh, you should put America first.
GWEN IFILL: Is the president or the Justice Department or the Obama administration putting their political — their thumb on the political scale in this? There are some who say, oh, of course, they're on their way out, so they're destroying everything at it.
JIM TANKERSLEY: Well, I think with the Justice Department in particular, it's hard to call this political.
This would be — when you talk to neutral observers of antitrust law, this is an example of — this is a couple of very big players in an already consolidated market that would, you know, the Justice Department believes, push up prices for consumers if they were allowed to get a bunch of market share together.
So, that's something that Democrats and Republicans have done. That's a power they have exercised as president. I'm not sure that we can call this a political move by Obama.
GWEN IFILL: And, Jim, is it balanced out by early administration moves to bail out the auto companies in Detroit, to bail out — "bail out" Wall Street — we use air quotes.
JIM TANKERSLEY: Well, he certainly — yes, the president certainly had his moments of working with business, and he still does.
He's pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal right now hand in hand with the Chamber and other groups of business lobbyists. So this is a president who in the beginning spent a lot of time trying to, you know, help the business community dig out from the recession, then has said a lot of things about them being fat cats or talking down Wall Street bonuses as bad.
And then took a lot of flak from them, and now has reached this moment where he meets them on a few things, he fights them on some others, and the political wind is sort of more with him maybe than with them at the moment.
GWEN IFILL: Well, it's interesting to see. The wind is definitely blowing against them at the moment, but we will see what happens next.
Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post, thank you very much.
JIM TANKERSLEY: Thanks for having me.