A presidential first: Biden mentions Tesla in auto production speech

Justin Sink

President Joe Biden finally invoked the name of the world’s most valuable automaker — the first time he has publicly uttered the word “Tesla” since taking office.

Even though Biden says he’s a car guy and embraces electric vehicles as a way to counter climate change, he has resisted mentioning the global brand most clearly associated with EVs.

The occasion for his reversal: a Tuesday speech at the White House on domestic auto manufacturing.

“Since 2021, companies have announced investments totaling more than $200 billion in domestic manufacturing here in America — from iconic companies like GM and Ford building out new electric vehicle production to Tesla, our nation’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, to innovative younger companies like Rivian building electric trucks or Proterra building electric buses,” Biden said. 

The comment came just a week after Tesla Inc. founder Elon Musk criticized the president online for repeatedly snubbing his company.

Musk on Tuesday tweeted a picture of Tesla vehicles in response to Biden, and replied to a Twitter clip of Biden’s comments with a smiley face with sunglasses.

At a White House briefing that followed Biden’s remarks on Tuesday, a reporter asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether Biden’s use of Tesla’s name marked a shift.

President Joe Biden speaks about domestic manufacturing, unions and electric vehicles in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Washington.

“We all know that Tesla is a major producer of electric vehicles,” Psaki said. “Certainly, the electric vehicle industry is one that we feel is a huge opportunity for the United States to move towards our clean energy goals and objectives and a range of automobile makers are a part of that effort.”

People familiar with Biden’s thinking say the president has preferred to highlight the work of automakers who use union labor. Autoworker unions have long supported the president’s political efforts, but Tesla employees are not unionized and Musk has publicly criticized organized labor.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo downplayed the rift and said she would be willing to consult with Musk on addressing semiconductor shortages that have impacted the auto industry. Raimondo said she was not aware of any policy within the administration that would prevent the federal government from soliciting advice from the automaker.

“None of this is personal,” Raimondo said in an interview Thursday with CNBC. “These issues are way too important for anyone to have, you know, feelings hurt. Like — let’s just do the work. And as I said, anyone who has good ideas or is willing to help us, absolutely we want the help.”

At every opportunity, Biden hails progress Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. have made toward fielding an electric fleet. But his ongoing and obvious snubs of Tesla — a source of mild intrigue within the administration — sparked increasingly exasperated public reactions from Musk, the world’s wealthiest person and the CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, which has government contracts with NASA and the U.S. military. 

Musk on Twitter has called the president “a damp sock puppet in human form.” 

— With assistance by Jennifer Epstein