Before Donald Trump was even inaugurated, Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields delivered what he called the Blue Oval’s “early vote of confidence” in the new president’s business agenda.
In theory, it promised to create a more favorable environment of lower corporate taxes and regulatory reform. And it pledged to benefit American manufacturers and their workers, for too long accustomed to large helpings of bipartisan disregard in Washington.
But after Friday’s debacle on health care reform and the childish blame game that followed, business leaders could be forgiven for thinking they may have given the new administration and the Republican-controlled Congress more credit than they deserve.
Markets swooned Monday as investors reconsidered their expectation that the real estate mogul-turned-politician and allies on Capitol Hill would use discipline to execute an allegedly business-friendly agenda. The Dow Jones Industrial Average recovered to lose roughly 46 points, the eighth consecutive trading day of losses.
That’s the longest losing streak since 2011, a sign investors are comparing Trump’s words with his deeds and finding markers of his performance wanting. It’s early, of course; but in politics, as in life, actions trump words.
If the failed effort (so far) to repeal and replace Obamacare is any indication, skepticism in the markets and c-suites around the country is warranted. Republican unanimity is proving an oxymoron in the administration’s opening months, shaking confidence that promised pro-growth policy preferences will become reality.
The onus is on Team Trump and the Republican majority to show they can deliver tax reform instead of devolving into yet another factional squabble. Because Democrats (aside from those up for re-election in red states) have little incentive to side with the president when some members of his own party won’t.
A ranking auto industry source called last week’s aborted vote on health care reform “a major bump.” Still, the source insisted that the industry’s confidence in Trump-led tax and regulatory reform remains intact — for now, buoyed by Team Trump’s eagerness to be briefed on competitive issues facing the industry.
These are the makings of a metaphorical double-edged sword for the auto industry. Given the Keystone Kops flavor of 11th-hour lobbying around the health-care non-vote, the business-friendly promise of Trump and the Republican majority in Congress remains just that: a promise.
And yet, Obama-era auto bailouts notwithstanding, the likes of Ford, General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV haven’t had an ally in the White House in at least the last generation — or more. Not one, anyway, who appeared receptive to policy and regulatory changes that could make the industry more competitive.
Not one who didn’t see the industry in general, and Detroit specifically, as a vehicle to finance expansion of the creeping regulatory state. Not one who didn’t see the contradiction in essentially dictating development of cars the market mostly doesn’t want to buy.
Yes, candidate Trump used Twitter to browbeat Ford for its plans to move compact car production to Mexico and GM for building Chevrolet Cruze hatchbacks in Mexico. He also used 140-character bursts to tout their reinvestment in U.S. facilities, including several in Michigan.
The net result, however, is a presidency that offers more opportunity than liability for Detroit’s automakers and the United Auto Workers, whose leaders are struggling to square Trump’s pro-worker rhetoric with their official antipathy to a Republican president in general and Trump in particular.
The bully pulpit lives. It’s not nothing for a GM CEO to be seated next to the president in the Roosevelt Room, for Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. to be touted by the president, for White House staffers to be seeking briefings on the industry, its challenges and political issues, for the president to reinstate a “mid-cycle review” of federal fuel economy rules.
For all the controversy surrounding Trump’s election and his first two months in office, the simple fact is that Detroit looks to have the kind of ally in the White House it hasn’t had in a long time.
The challenge is for the president to turn the rhetoric into reality. Judging by last week, that’s not guaranteed.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.