Joe Biden had a question for Tim Cook: Why, the then-vice president wanted to know, couldn’t Apple make the iPhone in the U.S.? It was January 2012, during President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and three months after the death of Cook’s predecessor, Steve Jobs. Biden was in Palo Alto for a dinner meeting with Cook and a group of tech leaders that included Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
As everyone at the dinner well knew, the idea of mass-producing an iPhone, or any advanced consumer electronics, in a domestic factory was an exceptionally tall order. The big Asian contract manufacturers, especially Apple Inc.’s main partner, Foxconn, had built city-size factories in China with armies of hundreds of thousands of skilled laborers. None of that scale existed in the U.S. Chinese factory employees generally worked much longer hours, for a fraction of what even the lowest-paid American workers make. “I’m not sure, short of dictatorial practices, that you could ever make that work,” says John Riccitiello, another Silicon Valley executive who witnessed the exchange between Cook and Biden.