If you relied on The Washington Post’s coverage of President Obama’s speech yesterday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, you would have missed some interesting messaging that approaches a narrative that could be very successful for the president come 2012.
Conventional wisdom is that the Chamber and the GOP with its relentless “creating jobs at all costs” has a winning message. But we can’t forget that many Americans, including Tea Partiers, are mighty upset with business and the damage Wall St. has done to the economy. Voters would need to be living in a cave if they didn’t realize that the gulf between rich and poor is widening and that CEOs are not held accountable for their failures, instead receiving golden parachutes.
Moreover, a wide swath of Americans have been harmed by the recession. It’s not just the unemployed. It is those who are working art-time when they want a full-time job or those working in jobs that pay a fraction of what those folks made before the recession. It is those who can’t see how they can send their kids to college, let alone retire, except in poverty. In short, there’s no shortage of people who are pissed and who are making a lot of sacrifices.
Asking Americans to sacrifice, while not in fashion since Ronald Reagan made greed an admirable trait, has in the past be fruitful. Americans are willing to sacrifice, especially for the benefit of their children.
Which brings me to these lines from Obama’s Chamber speech, from the AP’s telling of it.
"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."
Yes, it sounds almost Kennedy-esque: “Ask not what your country can do for you….”
He needs to take the narrative a little further:
Americans have made tremendous sacrifices to help this economy recover. They’ve taken jobs that pay less than they used to get paid or part-time work. Some of course, can’t find jobs at all. College seems out of reach. Retirement is a mirage.
What sacrifices are America’s businesses prepared to make? What can CEOs and company directors sacrifice?
I’ve heard business people say [this is an actual quote from a businessman after Obama’s speech] ‘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.’
That’s a cop-out. Sure a company needs to stay in business, but this notion that the only thing a company needs to do is maximize shareholder value is wrong-headed and unpatriotic. American business has a moral responsibility to be a good corporate citizen. After all, if the Supreme Court says corporations are citizens, they need to act like citizens. They need to remember they have a responsibility not just to profits, but to the communities they are in, the workers who make them successful. Continually cutting wages and benefits while CEO salaries go through the roof doesn’t sound very American to a lot of American people.
So let’s get back to the idea that we’re all in this together, and that Americans—all Americans including the titans of commerce—must, as the Constitutions exhorts us, “promote the general welfare.”
Profits are good. Capitalism is the basis for the greatest economy in the world. But capitalists have responsibilities just like everyday Americans.
So the next time your board of directors meet ask, “What sacrifices are we willing to make?”