Business Leaders, Drawn Into Fray by Trump, See Chance to Step Back

From the moment President Trump took office, big businesses were thrust into the culture wars like never before.

In the days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration in 2017, companies protested his temporary ban on all visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Months later, a slew of chief executives objected to the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Soon after that, a pair of business groups advising the White House disbanded, following Mr. Trump’s equivocating response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va.

It wasn’t the first time major companies had engaged with political issues. During the 1980s, some big corporations stopped doing business with South Africa because of its apartheid system, while others took progressive stances on gay rights. And during the Obama administration, companies, including Salesforce and Bank of America, took stands against laws that would have curtailed transgender rights.

But Mr. Trump’s extreme policies on things as far-flung as immigration and climate change — and the ensuing outrage of employees and customers — made it nearly impossible for big corporations to avoid entering the political fray. Even if they had tried to stay on the sidelines, Mr. Trump wouldn’t let them, as he routinely called for boycotts of companies that he felt had crossed him.

“Over the past four years, companies have had to be even more outspoken with their messages,” said Aaron Levie, the chief executive of Box, a cloud computing company, and a vocal critic of the president.

But with Joseph R. Biden Jr. now the president-elect, corporate America may be in line for a breather. Instead of having to respond to every incendiary policy or public position from Mr. Trump, companies may soon be able to advance their interests without becoming embroiled in the hurly-burly of partisan politics.

“When it comes to climate change, when it comes to bringing in talent from all around the world, when it comes to making sure our companies are diverse — these are generally things that people across the population believe in,” Mr. Levie said. “They get framed in these ideological terms that make them political when they’re actually not. My hope is that, for the next four years, we can get to a place where we can talk about policies in a more normal way.”

So far, business leaders say they expect to continue speaking out for issues they believe in.

“I don’t think we’re going to see backsliding in the business community,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and a board member at PepsiCo, Ralph Lauren and Square. “The leaders I know are committed to change and know that change is necessary to advance their business interests.”

The last four years may have made companies more confident about publicly addressing sensitive topics, even if it means courting controversy.

“Even though you have half the country who voted for President Trump, this is important to customers, and it’s clearly important to investors,” said Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner of the accounting firm PwC, referring to issues like inclusion and the environment.

But the election has also revealed just how popular Mr. Trump remains around the country.

While Mr. Trump never won over a majority of the electorate in his runs for president, 2020 showed that the support for him in 2016 was no fluke. More people voted for Mr. Trump this election — upward of 70 million — than did so four years ago. And they cast their ballots after a first term in which he rolled back environmental protections, denied that systemic racism is a problem and cracked down on immigration, stances that corporate America largely opposes.

“Going into this year’s presidential election, we all knew the U.S. was deeply divided,” BlackRock’s chief executive, Larry Fink, wrote in a note to employees on Wednesday. “These divisions were brewing for years, along a range of social and economic issues, and have been exacerbated by the pandemic. This election, however, has made clear how deep these rifts really are — America is a nation divided.”

However, the prospect of a divided government — should Republicans retain control of the Senate — appeals to businesses for a variety of reasons. Wall Street has warmed to the idea, believing that such a situation would restore credibility to the White House but prevent progressive policies that target businesses from being enacted.

Beyond that, there are economic issues championed by Republicans and Democrats that big business is likely to support. For example, Republicans have been advocating liability protections for companies, to protect them from Covid-related claims, something many big corporations support, while Democrats are eager to invest in infrastructure, another policy favored by corporate America.

“If we get a Republican Senate and a President Biden, I see much more of an opportunity for businesses to pick their spots, to work with both sides, rather than have to take these political stands,” said Ronnie Chatterji, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business who studies business and politics.

With Mr. Biden in the White House, some executives expressed hope that some of the issues that had become highly charged in recent years might become much less so. Surveys show broad public support for action to combat climate change and racism, even among supporters of Mr. Trump.

“Without President Trump drawing attention to social and cultural issues, I see a very different role for C.E.O. activism,” Mr. Chatterji said. “The issues that are going to be hot are going to be less the hot-button social issues and more the bread-and-butter economic issues.”

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And after four years of an often testy relationship with the Trump administration, executives said that the prospect of a Biden presidency could offer the chance to engage with the White House on a range of issues.

“Corporate leaders will find opportunities to partner with the Biden administration in ways they didn’t with the Trump administration,” Mr. Walker said. Such areas could include new investments in 5G cellphone networks, new support for schools and immigration reform that makes it easier for companies to hire workers from abroad.

Rich Lesser, chief executive of the Boston Consulting Group, said that in such a situation, “there will be real opportunities for businesses to work productively on a number of issues, whether it’s climate, or the digital divide, or win-win solutions on immigration.”

Until recently, the conventional wisdom had it that investors preferred companies to stay out of politics. That has changed in the Trump era. Mr. Fink has repeatedly said that he expects companies to focus not just on profits but also on being good corporate citizens.

And last year, the Business Roundtable, an influential lobbying group that represents large companies, put out a statement arguing that companies should no longer advance only the interests of shareholders. Instead, the group said, they must also invest in their employees, protect the environment and deal fairly and ethically with their suppliers.

Mr. Levie said that after he spoke out against Mr. Trump’s travel ban, he heard from investors who applauded him for taking a stand.

And while Mr. Ryan of PwC said he has received pushback from some employees who have accused him of wading into politics, he said that on balance, engaging with social issues has been good for the firm.

“Most times when business have taken stances, consumers have rewarded them,” he said.

That’s not to say there aren’t risks.

In August, Mr. Trump called for a boycott of Goodyear, the tire maker, after reports that the company had banned MAGA hats at its workplaces. Over the last several years, Mr. Trump has called for boycotts of the National Football League, Apple, AT&T, Harley-Davidson and many other companies for perceived slights against him or his policies.

And when companies dip into politics, it can also be demoralizing for employees. Vanessa Burbano, a professor at the Columbia Business School, has studied how workers respond when their companies stake out positions on hot button issues. Her research found that employees who don’t agree with a company’s stance can become disillusioned.

That creates a problem for big companies with diverse work forces spread out across red and blue states.

“Companies are cross-national entities,” Ms. Burbano said. “You can’t have one political stand for your employees in California and another one for your employees in Texas.”

But while threats from the president can create an unwelcome news cycle, few companies have walked back their positions as a result of his bluster.

“These issues are ingrained,” said Mindy Lubber, chief executive of Ceres, a nonprofit organization that advocates sustainable business practices. “Companies are seeing that their investors care, their consumers care and their employees care. The wind is finally at our back.”

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country this summer, many companies have pledged to increase diversity within their ranks. And on climate change, in particular, companies appear to be moving forward with ambitious plans to decrease their carbon footprints and increase their use of renewable energy.

“Three years ago, companies were slow in saying they would commit to a net-zero future,” Ms. Lubber said. “It is not a radical idea today. They’re all moving forward.”

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