U.S. Steel is an iconic example of the lost manufacturing muscle that President Biden says his economic policies will bring back to the United States.
But last month, the storied-but-diminished company announced plans to be acquired by a Japanese competitor. That development has put Mr. Biden in an awkward bind as he tries to balance attempts to revitalize the nation’s industrial sector with his efforts to rebuild international alliances.
Mr. Biden’s administration has expressed some discomfort with the deal and is reviewing the proposed $14.1 billion takeover bid by Japan’s Nippon Steel. The company is offering a hefty premium for U.S. Steel, which has struggled to compete against a flood of cheap foreign metal and has been weighing takeover offers for several months.
The proposal has quickly become a high-profile example of the difficult political choices Mr. Biden faces in his zeal to revive American industry, one that could test the degree to which he is willing to flex presidential power in pursuit of what is arguably his primary economic goal: the creation and retention of high-paying union manufacturing jobs in the United States.
Mr. Biden is under pressure from the United Steelworkers union and populist senators from both parties, including Democrats defending crucial swing seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania this fall, to nix the sale on national security grounds. The senators contend that domestically owned steel production is critical to U.S. manufacturing and supply chains. They have warned that a foreign owner could be more likely to move U.S. Steel jobs and production overseas.
“This really should be a no-brainer,” Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, said in an interview last week. “I don’t know why it would be difficult to say, my gosh, we’ve got to maintain steel production in this country, and particularly a company like this one, where you have thousands of workers in good union jobs.”
U.S. Steel executives say the deal would benefit workers and give the merged companies “world-leading capabilities” in steel production. They announced last month that Nippon Steel had agreed to keep the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh and to honor the four-year collective bargaining agreement that the steelworkers’ union ratified in December 2022.
Other supporters of the takeover bid say blocking the sale risks angering a key American ally. Mr. Biden has courted Japanese collaboration on a wide range of issues, including efforts to counter Chinese manufacturing in clean energy and other emerging technologies, and welcomed Japanese investment in new American manufacturing facilities including for advanced batteries.
Wilbur Ross, a former steel company executive who served as commerce secretary under President Donald J. Trump, wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal that there is “nothing in the deal from which the U.S. needs defending. Attacks by Washington pols only create unnecessary geopolitical tensions, and those, not the acquisition itself, could endanger American national security.”
Adding to the cross-pressures on Mr. Biden: It is unclear what would happen to the 123-year-old U.S. Steel if the administration scuttles the deal and whether doing so would actually guarantee greater job security for the company’s nearly 15,000 North American employees.
U.S. Steel has faced challenges for decades because of intensifying foreign competition, particularly from China, which has flooded the global market with cheap, state-subsidized steel. American presidents have spent years trying to bolster and protect domestic steel makers through a mix of subsidies, import restrictions and so-called Buy America requirements for government purchases.
“No U.S. industry has benefited more from protection than the steel industry,” Scott Lincicome, a trade policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute think tank, wrote in a 2017 research paper.
In recent years, presidents have increased those protections further. Mr. Trump imposed tariffs on imported steel, including from Japan. Mr. Biden has partially rolled back those levies in an attempt to rebuild alliances. Mr. Biden also included strict Buy America provisions in sweeping new laws to invest in infrastructure, clean energy and other advanced manufacturing.
Those efforts have not come close to bringing back the levels of domestic steel production that the United States enjoyed in the 1970s — or even of recent decades. Raw steel production reached higher levels under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama than it has under Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump.
Employment in the industry fell steadily in the 1990s and mid-2000s. In 2022, there were just over 83,000 workers in iron and steel mills in the United States, which was less than half the number from 1992.
Senators including Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, both Democrats, and Mr. Hawley and J.D. Vance of Ohio, both Republicans, urged Mr. Biden to review the proposed U.S. Steel sale to guard against lost steel production and jobs. Mr. Brown cited Nippon Steel’s failure to notify or consult with union leaders ahead of making its bid for the company.
“Tens of thousands of Americans, including many Ohioans, rely on this industry for good-paying, middle-class jobs,” he wrote in a letter to Mr. Biden last month. “These workers deserve to work for a company that invests in its employees and not only honors their right to join a union, but respects and collaborates with its work force.”
The calls for an administrative review of the deal largely focused on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which is known as CFIUS and headed by Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary. The committee scrutinizes possible sales of American firms to foreign ones for possible national security threats, then issues recommendations to the president, who can suspend or block a deal.
Shortly before Christmas, Mr. Biden appeared to grant the request for review, while stopping short of saying he would block it.
Lael Brainard, who chairs the White House National Economic Council, said in a news release that Mr. Biden welcomed foreign investment in American manufacturing but “believes the purchase of this iconic American-owned company by a foreign entity — even one from a close ally — appears to deserve serious scrutiny in terms of its potential impact on national security and supply chain reliability.”
The administration, Ms. Brainard said, “will be ready to look carefully at the findings of any such investigation and to act if appropriate.”
Steelworkers cheered the move. David McCall, president of United Steelworkers International, said in a statement that Mr. Biden was “demonstrating once again the president’s unwavering commitment to domestic workers and industries.”
Independent experts say it would be well within historical norms for the committee to evaluate the sale. That will likely include a detailed economic analysis of whether the deal could lead to diminished steel production capacity in the United States, said Emily Kilcrease, a CFIUS expert and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
But Ms. Kilcrease said that based on the committee’s past decisions, she expected the review to stop well short of a recommendation to kill the sale. Instead, she said, CFIUS might require an agreement from Nippon Steel to maintain certain levels of U.S. employment or production as a condition of the sale’s going through.
“I would be shocked if this deal got blocked,” she said.
Mr. Hawley said the choice was ultimately Mr. Biden’s — and a test of his commitment to the industry.
“If the administration wants to block the sale, they absolutely have grounds to do it and the legal authority,” he said. “So it’s just a question of, do they want to? And will they have the guts to do it?”