Echoing John F. Kennedy, President Barack Obama prodded business leaders Monday to “ask yourselves what you can do for America,” not just for company bottom lines, even as he sought to smooth his uneasy relations with the nation’s corporate executives.
Speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the president urged the business community to help accelerate the slow economic recovery by increasing hiring and unleashing some of the $2 trillion piling up on their balance sheets.
“I want to encourage you to get in the game,” Obama said.
He enumerated new efforts by his administration to improve the nation’s business infrastructure, spend more to support entrepreneurs and foster greater innovation. He vowed to address “a burdensome corporate tax code,” and go after “unnecessary and outdated regulations.”
But to a polite, subdued audience of about 200 he also offered a stout defense of health care and financial regulation overhauls — two signature administration initiatives that caused some of the most rancorous disputes with the Chamber last year.
“I want to be clear: Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America,” Obama said.
“As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation.”
President Kennedy, in his inaugural address 50 years ago, memorably declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Reacting, Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s chief lobbyist, said, “Companies first, unlike a government, have to sustain their operation and that requires being able to pay your employees, vendors, suppliers and bondholders.”
“Bottom line, the most patriotic thing a company can do is ensure it is in business and take steps to stay in business; otherwise everyone loses and more people lose their jobs,” he said.
The U.S. Chamber mounted a vigorous lobbying campaign against the health care bill and the financial regulation overhaul, particularly a provision creating a consumer financial protection agency. It also spent at least $32 million in the 2010 elections.