Corporate America is on our minds today, because President Obama just gave a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. With the future decidedly uncertain, Obama made overtures to the corporate community, and also called on them to be responsible and help build the middle class of this country, by insuring that all boats are lifted by the tide, and not get (as he put it) "left behind, stuck in the mud." This wasn't the only time in the speech he got Kennedyesque, also calling on the corporate titans to: "Ask yourselves what you can do to hire more American workers, what you can do to support the American economy and invest in this nation."
President Obama also included a lot of warm outreach to the private industry, including the "winning the future" laundry list from his State Of The Union speech (education, innovation, investment). He reached a hand out on the subject of his health reform law, regulatory reform, and revamping the tax code. He also called on the business community to put the hundreds of billions in cash they've got sitting around to some good use in the future, instead of letting it sit in the bank.
But the most interesting parts, to me, were the inspirational calls Obama made to share the wealth by paying workers decently for their efforts, thus preserving the middle class that makes America so strong. The full transcript of his speech is up at the White House web site, but I wanted to excerpt a few passages as food for thought today:
America's success didn't happen overnight, and it didn't happen by accident. It happened because [of] the freedom that has allowed good ideas to flourish, that has allowed capitalism to thrive; it happened because of the conviction that in this country hard work should be rewarded and that opportunity should be there for anybody who's willing to reach for it. And because it happened at every juncture in our history -- not just once, not just twice, but over and over again -- we came together to remake ourselves; we came together as one nation and did what was necessary to win the future. That is why I am so confident that we will win the future again.
That's the challenge that we face today. We still have, by far, the world's largest and most vibrant economy. We have the most productive workers, the finest universities and the freest markets. The men and women in this room are living testimony that American industry is still the source of the most dynamic companies, and the most ingenious entrepreneurs.
But we also know that with the march of technology over the last few decades, the competition for jobs and businesses has grown fierce. The globalization of our economy means that businesses can now open up a shop, employ workers and produce their goods wherever an Internet connection exists. Tasks that were once done by 1,000 workers can now be done by 100 or in some cases even 10. And the truth is, as countries like China and India and Brazil grow and develop larger middle classes, it's profitable for global companies to aggressively pursue these markets and, at times, to set up facilities in these countries.
These forces are as unstoppable as they are powerful. But combined with a brutal and devastating recession, these forces have also shaken the faith of the American people -- in the institutions of business and government. They see a widening chasm of wealth and opportunity in this country, and they wonder if the American Dream is slipping away.
They wonder if the middle class, rather than expanding as it has through our lifetimes, is in the midst of an inexorable contraction. And we can't ignore these concerns. We have to renew people's faith in the promise of this country -- that this is a place where you can make it if you try. And we have to do this together: business and government; workers and CEOs; Democrats and Republicans.
We know what it will take for America to win the future. We need to out-innovate, we need to out-educate, we need to out-build our competitors. We need an economy that's based not on what we consume and borrow from other nations, but what we make and what we sell around the world. We need to make America the best place on Earth to do business.
And this is a job for all of us. As a government, we will help lay the foundation for you to grow and innovate and succeed. We will upgrade our transportation and communication networks so you can move goods and information more quickly and more cheaply. We'll invest in education so that you can hire the most skilled, talented workers in the world. And we'll work to knock down barriers that make it harder for you to compete, from the tax code to the regulatory system.
But 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.
I understand the challenges you face. I understand you are under incredible pressure to cut costs and keep your margins up. I understand the significance of your obligations to your shareholders and the pressures that are created by quarterly reports. I get it.
But as we work with you to make America a better place to do business, I'm hoping that all of you are thinking what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire more American workers, what you can do to support the American economy and invest in this nation. That's what I want to talk about today -- the responsibilities we all have -- the mutual responsibilities we have -- to secure the future that we all share.
Towards the end of the speech, Obama returned to this theme and wound it up with a great quote for all of us to consider as we ponder the future of ourselves, and of corporate America:
But we have to recognize that some common-sense regulations often will make sense for your businesses, as well as your families, as well as your neighbors, as well as your coworkers. Of course, your responsibility goes beyond recognizing the need for certain standards and safeguards. If we're fighting to reform the tax code and increase exports to help you compete, the benefits can't just translate into greater profits and bonuses for those at the top. They have to be shared by American workers, who need to know that expanding trade and opening markets will lift their standards of living as well as your bottom line.
We can't go back to the kind of economy and culture that we saw in the years leading up to the recession, where growth and gains in productivity just didn't translate into rising incomes and opportunity for the middle class. That's not something necessarily we can legislate, but it's something that all of us have to take responsibility for thinking about. How do we make sure that everybody's got a stake in trade, everybody's got a stake in increasing exports, everybody's got a stake in rising productivity? Because ordinary folks end up seeing their standards of living rise as well. That's always been the American promise. That's what J.F.K. meant when he said, "A rising tide lifts all boats." Too many boats have been left behind, stuck in the mud.
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