On Monday morning, in an auditorium at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center packed with auto dealers, Hillary Clinton received a warm welcome.
It might seem like a surprise that Clinton, who gave the closing keynote at this weekend’s National Automobile Dealer Association (NADA) conference in the Crescent City, might have gotten such a welcome in this most conservative of industry confabs. Also, that NADA chose her for the speech, given most automobile dealers are on the other side of the political aisle. Even more so, given that she’s very pre-presidential for 2016.
And her speech at NADA could easily have been construed as a pre-campaign campaign to ingratiate herself with a powerful business lobby. It was, in fact, packed with down-home anecdotes about her and her husband's humble beginnings and the cars they and their families have owned, including the Oldsmobile Cutlass that was her first set of wheels, purchased for $200.
Dealers gave her standing ovations before and after, clapping often, with the biggest responses around her comments about national unity, the SEALS getting Bin Laden, and Mary Barra being the first woman to take the helm of a major auto company.
"Building and selling cars makes the middle class, and the resurgence [of the automobile business] has been the driving force behind our recovery. The dealers across our country play a vital role in our communities," she said, touting the influence of the dealership business on employment.
Clinton also praised dealers for surviving "tough times," with the retail side of the car business having borne a big part of the burden rising out of the recession, and with the restructuring of the automakers. "But you show us resilience. There is no challenge too big or too hard when you set goals and persevere." Many were probably grumbling quietly about how TARP bailout money didn’t help them too much.
And she made clear her perspective on global commerce and global business-friendly policy that encourages U.S. participation in cultivating economic growth in other markets. That approach, she said, helps the U.S., and U.S. businesses. The exemplar: George Marshall and his strategy to rebuild Europe.
“George Marshall was right,” she said, adding that auto exports surged 80% between 2009 and 2012. “And we are engaged around the world because we care about values; but we also want to build [a global] middle class that will buy American products."
General Motors' engine plant in Kashtent, Uzbekistan, got mention as an example of bilateral business success. "General Motors has planted a flag in Central Asia, and doing that means bringing more jobs back home," she said. "That plant is full of American-made machinery. And foreign revenue helps U.S. automakers."
About GM CEO Mary Barra, she said her ascension to the top of GM bodes well for everyone because “we have a lot of women in the corporate pipeline who have been in industries for a long time and now are in a position where they can be given the opportunity for leadership. We are seeing these decisions made regardless of gender. It sends a really good signal to boys and girls that we don't have a person to waste. We want the hardest-working, smartest, most-innovative people."
She also spoke about TARP, an issue that is divisive among dealers because restructuring of GM and Chrysler brought — to use a euphemism — rationalization of the franchise world. "If you look at TARP, we had that money paid back. That's something I think a lot of us were worried about. I do think the toughing out Ford was able to do, and GM and Chrysler's bankruptcy and looking now in a position to thrive, I think it was the right decision. NADA lost jobs and businesses but the overall picture turned out to be positive, and with dealerships coming back, I hope we are on much firmer footing."
Oh, and there was the requisite comment about 2016: "I don't know. It's not a satisfactory answer, I know. I have said and will keep saying [that] we have lots of issues right now we have to deal with. Let's solve the problems we have elected officials to solve now. We spend too much time looking over the horizon."