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Obama Needs JFK Playbook for BP Meeting

June 11, 2010

From almost the moment he was elected, Barack Obama has been counseled to channel the spirit of FDR in confronting both war and economic calamity. But with for the still unfolding oil spill disaster, President Obama needs a different role model. When CEO Tony Hayward and other BP executives come to the White House next week, Obama should look to JFK's 1962 beat-down of U.S. Steel for guidance.
In April 1962, union steel workers at the behest of the Kennedy administration agreed to modest contract increases in order to tamp down inflation. But U.S. Steel nevertheless raised its prices $6 a ton. In response, a furious President John F. Kennedy publicly blasted the company for its treachery:

"Simultaneous and identical actions of United States Steel and other leading steel corporations, increasing steel prices by some 6 dollars a ton, constitute a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest...At a time when restraint and sacrifice are being asked of every citizen, the American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans."

In a statement delivered before his April 11, 1962 press conference, President Kennedy warned Big Steel that "The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission are examining the significance of this action in a free, competitive economy" and hinted that price could controls were on the table. In an eerily parallel to today's massive profits and shareholder payouts at BP, Kennedy noted:

"The industry's cash dividends have exceeded 600 million dollars in each of the last five years, and earnings in the first quarter of this year were estimated in the February 28th Wall Street Journal to be among the highest in history."

An enraged Kennedy insisted that the American people had a right to expect a "higher sense of business responsibility for the welfare of their country than has been shown in the last two days." He concluded his statement:

"Some time ago I asked each American to consider what he would do for his country and I asked the steel companies. In the last 24 hours we had their answer."

For his efforts, as Joseph Palermo noted in December 2009, President Kennedy was rewarded by the American public. U.S. Steel backed down and JFK's popularity jumped up. "The public supported Kennedy's tough stand by a margin of 58 to 22 percent," Palermo wrote, "and the President's approval rating stood at 73 percent."
BP, of course, is not an American company. But is the face of an industry strangling the Gulf Coast even as it maintains a stranglehold on the entire U.S. economy. When President Obama meets with Hayward and BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, there should be no deal regarding a BP dividend cut in exchange for PR help from the U.S. government. Even for Barack Obama, there can be no compromise with an oil spill and the corporate negligence which produced it.
In 1965, JFK biographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recounted Kennedy's reaction to being betrayed by U.S. Steel. JFK told him:

"My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it till now."

Or as FDR said of corporate power in his day, "I welcome their hatred." All in all, good advice from two Democratic presidents to another.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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