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A JFK moment for Obama at the US Chamber of Commerce

Obama implored businesses at the US Chamber of Commerce to ask what they can do for their country. But many businesses are more likely to make decisions based on investment conditions than on patriotism.

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In a twist on John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural line, today President Obama implored the American business community to ask themselves what they can do for America.

Speaking before the US Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the government has a “responsibility” to create favorable conditions for US business. But he said that business also has a “responsibility” to invest in new jobs, and well-paying ones – even in the face of low market demand.

“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,” Obama said.

The obligation of businesses to workers and the community – often called a “social compact” – has been a hot topic in this era of stagnant wage growth and a widening wealth gap. Now, during a recovery of slow job growth, the president – and many others – wish businesses would stop sitting on nearly $2 trillion on their balance books and invest that cash in new jobs.

But will an invocation to conscience and patriotism do the trick?

The question brings to mind the case of Henry Ford and his famous 1914 pay raise, seen by many as a socially conscious decision. He increased the daily wage to $5 – more than twice what he offered to most of his workers. “One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers,” Ford said. “Paying high wages is behind the prosperity of this country.”

But that quote came years after he made the decision, which was originally based on hard-nosed economics. Mr. Ford increased wages to reduce high turnover and improve efficiency on the assembly line.

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