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Posted: September 8, 2010

For glass-half-full types, President Barack Obama's proclamation this spring that his administration "is committed to helping small businesses drive our economy toward recovery and long-term growth" was another indication that small business has a true ally in the White House.

For others, however, those words provided another stinging reminder of how policymakers in Washington have failed to back their statements with action. Despite repeated assurances from the administration, accompanied by a flurry of new pro-entrepreneur initiatives, small-business supporters such as Todd McCracken, president of the National Small Business Association, in Washington, D.C., are concerned that policymakers remain largely beholden to big business, just as they were when George W. Bush ran the White House.

Just consider Uncle Sam's recent spending habits: $358 billion spent by the feds on small-business initiatives, compared with $2.8 trillion for non-small-business initiatives such as the Wall Street bailout. Even with a vocal supporter in the White House, McCracken contends, Washington's small-business track record of late is full of "bills that just didn't go far enough, proposals that took a wrong turn altogether and initiatives that left us scratching our heads wondering 'What were they thinking?'"

On the other hand--the glass-half-full side--is Lesa Mitchell, vice president of Advancing Innovation of the Kauffman Foundation, an organization devoted to the development of entrepreneurship. "This is by far the greatest level of interest we have seen from any administration," Mitchell says. "And that is a bipartisan comment." Meantime, Ben S. Bernanke, Federal Reserve chairman under both Obama and Bush, is urging banks to lend more to small businesses, calling it crucial to the economic recovery. Bernanke pointed out that as of June, outstanding loans to small businesses declined to $660 billion in the first quarter, down $40 billion from two years earlier.

At the center of it all is Karen G. Mills, the president's choice to lead the U.S. Small Business Administration. Mills, a New Englander with a strong venture capital and private equity background, has the formidable task of making the role scripted for small business a reality in the economic recovery. As you'd suspect, the small-business community is also divided on her qualifications to fulfill that role, given her résumé heavy on big business.