Commentary

Trump Pushes 'Build Plants' Theme In F2F With Auto Execs

President Donald Trump pressed his bring-jobs-home agenda yesterday in an hour-long breakfast summit at the White House with the CEOs of the Big Three and other auto industry executives while he also “[looked] to mend fences,” as the Wall Street Journal headline puts it.

“Trump pledged to speed up regulatory reviews for business permits and create a friendlier climate for companies that want to invest in the U.S., stepping up his push to curb the flow of jobs overseas,” write the WSJ’s Christina Rogers, Peter Nicholas and Mike Colias

“We’re going to make the process much more simple for the oil companies and everybody else that wants to do business in the United States,” Trump told them. But he “also reiterated that companies would pay a steep price should they not comply with his ‘America First’ credo, echoing his Twitter messages in recent months threatening to slap a border tax on companies moving factory work abroad.”

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The meeting, which included General Motors’ Mary Barra, Ford’s Mark Fields and Fiat Chrysler's Sergio Marchionne, “was the latest sign of Trump's uncommon degree of intervention for a U.S. president into corporate affairs as he has repeatedly pressured automakers and other manufacturers to ‘buy American and hire American,’” Reuters’ David Shepardson and Roberta Rampton write.

“We have a very big push on to have auto plants and other plants — many other plants,” he told the press as the meeting got underway,  “It's happening. It’s happening big league.”

Under a lede that suggests the president was attempting to “reset relationships” with the automakers, the Detroit News’ Keith Laing and Ian Thibodeau write that “being summoned to the White House in the first days of the new administration puts automakers in the delicate position of having to satisfy a president who made campaign promises of bringing production home to the U.S. — and still meet the financial demands of stockholders. Some economists say the president’s promise to renegotiate North American Free Trade Agreement could have the unintended consequence of making Detroit automakers less competitive.”

Forbes contributor David Kiley’s take was more direct. “Trump To Automakers: ‘Welcome’ To The Dictatorship,” the hed reads. Kiley points out that the president “has never had to build consensus or follow a process he himself did not create,” and concludes: “It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Especially for auto companies trying to make a plan and succeed in growing and becoming more profitable.” 

Trump assured the executives that he intended to “curtail ‘unnecessary’ environmental regulations and make it easier to build plants in the United States,” Steve Overly reports for the Washington Post. But that’s easier promised than done, Kristin Dziczek, director of the industry, labor and economics group at the Center for Automotive Research, indicated to Overly.

“Economics still favor building plants and hiring workers in Mexico, where labor is less expensive and there are fewer trade barriers. What’s more, Dziczek said the big automakers make investments knowing they will outlive any single president, regardless of what policies or regulations are put in place,” Overly writes.

The auto executives put a positive spin on the get-together. 

“I think as an industry, we’re excited about working together with the president and his administration on tax policies, on regulation and on trade to really create a renaissance in American manufacturing,” Ford CEO Fields said afterwards, Fox Business’ Matthew Rocco reports. GM’s Barra “echoed those sentiments,” Rocco writes, and Fiat Chrysler’s Marchionne said his company “shares President Trump’s desire to build a strong manufacturing base in the U.S.”

That’s the public face.

“Automakers used to complain their economic and technological importance were underappreciated, but at the rate the Trump Administration has begun, the industry is already praying for a return to anonymity,” Mark Phelan, the Detroit Free Press’ auto critic writes in an analysis published Saturday that separates claims made by the administration in recent months from the reality of what the automakers are actually doing and why they’re doing it.

“Only the most venal executive can support the race to the bottom of the wage scale some industries engaged in as they moved manufacturing to low-pay countries, but there’s more to automaking than that, and there’s much more to automakers’ recent announcements about investment and production than a direct response to Trump’s kvetching,” Phelan writes.

That said, kvetching tends to garner much more votes than dense economic analyses.

“If you're wondering why President Donald Trump has taken such a strong interest in auto industry jobs, you could start looking at the electoral map of the states that put him in office,” points out CNBC’s John W. Schoen. “Of the 10 states that are the largest auto industry employers, eight of them went for Trump in the November election.”

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