In 1974, President Richard M. Nixon wrote a letter to McDonald’s chairman Ray Kroc, complimenting the fast-food chain for its “fast service, cheerful hospitality — and [being] probably one of the best food buys in America.” Two years earlier, Kroc had, by his own account, donated $250,000 to the now-infamous Committee for the reelection of the President. Nixon acknowledged the burger baron’s campaign largesse with an invitation to a White House dinner for his most deep-pocketed donors. More notably, Nixon would also advocate for McDonald’s right to raise prices on its Quarter Pounders amid anti-inflationary price controls, and maintain that McDonald’s and others who employed teenagers should be exempt from a proposed minimum-wage hike.
While Nixon’s cozy relationship with McDonald’s and other former presidents’ fast-food-friendly policies have only received a modicum of the press coverage that Trump has received this week, they were far more consequential for everyday Americans.
The Nixon administration’s relationship to fast food was not limited to backing McDonald’s positions on consumer price controls and the minimum wage. Nixon’s commerce department also facilitated federally subsidized loans for fast-food franchisees in the name of promoting African American entrepreneurship and job creation, an idea that had originated with policymakers working for Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, after the urban uprisings of the mid-to-late 1960s underscored the need for economic stimulus in African American communities.
This logic that fast-food franchises could boost economically depressed areas continued for decades. In 1996, a Clinton administration urban and rural renewal program called Empowerment Zones/Enterprise Communities partnered with Burger King with the intention of opening 125 restaurants in inner-city neighborhoods. That Clinton was himself a fast-food devotee before becoming a vegan in 2010 due to heart scares was well-known — so well-known that in 1992 “Saturday Night Live” lampooned his detours to McDonald’s while jogging on the campaign trail.
George W. Bush was also an ally of the fast-food industry. In 2002, two New York teenagers sued McDonald’s for contributing to their obesity; even though a federal judge eventually dismissed the lawsuit, it raised the specter that similar lawsuits banking on more favorable outcomes such as those filed by smokers against Big Tobacco would follow. In response, Rep. Ric Keller, (R-Fla.), a recipient of hefty campaign contributions from McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Domino’s and other food interests, introduced the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act. The legislation, dubbed the “Cheeseburger Bill” in the press, would have shielded restaurants, food manufacturers, distributors and advertising companies from lawsuits blaming them for weight gain or obesity. Although the bill failed to pass the Senate, Bush had pledged to sign it if it reached his desk.
When Barack Obama assumed the presidency, it seemed that the fast-food industry’s long-standing friendship with the White House might be threatened. After all, first lady Michelle Obama installed a vegetable garden and launched Let’s Move!, the anti-childhood obesity initiative, in February 2010. In December of that same year Obama also signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a law mandating that federally subsidized school lunches meet stricter nutrition standards. (The Trump administration has since rescinded those standards.)
But fast-food companies had no cause for concern. Let’s Move! partnered with McDonald’s and Subway, and Michelle Obama publicly commended the two chains for introducing healthier foods in their kids’ meals. “McDonald’s is making continued progress today by providing more fruit and reducing the calories in its Happy Meals,” she said in 2011.
The first lady also issued a news release praising Subway in 2014, and declared on a visit to a Washington Subway franchise, “Subway’s kids’ menu makes life easier for parents, because they know that no matter what their kids order, it’s going to be a healthy choice.” Meanwhile, her perennially lean husband was also known to indulge in fast food (albeit at slightly more upscale chains such as Shake Shack and Five Guys), which many media outlets seemed to find endearing, in contrast to their sneering at Trump’s KFC and McDonald’s meals aboard Air Force One.
No previous president used a fast-food spread to make a political point like Trump did in trying to use this week’s event to blame Democrats for the government shutdown. But it is important to consider that the pro-fast-food positions of earlier presidents were arguably more consequential in practical terms than Trump’s self-proclaimed order of “1000 hamberders.”
The assumption by the Johnson, Nixon and Clinton administrations that fast-food franchises could spark economic revitalization in urban African American neighborhoods helped bring thousands of fast-food restaurants to communities now struggling with disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes and diet-related diseases. And in the decades since the major fast-food chains first opened franchises in inner-city minority communities in the late 1960s, they have aggressively marketed to minority consumers — a strategy which has continued unabated, as a University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity report released this Tuesday found.
Meanwhile, if the Cheeseburger Bill that George W. Bush supported had been enacted, fast-food companies might have escaped all accountability and been less inclined to even bother introducing the healthier kids’ meals that Michelle Obama applauded. But the first lady, too, missed opportunities to take fast-food purveyors and the food and beverage industry to task. The Let’s Move! program’s focus on exercise as a means of combating obesity, rather than reducing the consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages, is precisely what the industry wants, as findings from a recent British Medical Journal study about Coca-Cola’s strategies in China revealed.
Progressive media outlets have feasted on the banquet story as an emblem of Trump’s tackiness. But this has an additional drawback: It will only fuel Trump supporters’ conviction that those they deride as “coastal liberal elites” look down on them and their tastes.
Most of the states leading the country in fast-food restaurants per capita went for Trump in 2016. In such a polarized political climate, elites’ mockery of fast food in the White House has the potential to reinforce Trump supporters’ allegiances to fast-food chains and squelch their appetite for meaningful public-health interventions. One does not win friends by insulting them — a lesson Trump could also take on Day 28 of the government shutdown.