Howes: GM, Ford use promise of jobs to battle for Trump favor

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump tours the U.S. Army's Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Oh., and once again demands that General Motors Co. reverse plans to close its Lordstown Assembly Plant in northeast Ohio.

President Donald Trump isn’t the only one battling with General Motors Co. over its investment in American auto workers.

Rival Ford Motor Co. is, too. On the same day that GM endured another verbal assault during the commander-in-chief's visit to an Ohio tank plant, the Dearborn automaker repackaged and delivered a long-planned $900 million investment in its Flat Rock Assembly plant to build battery-electric vehicles, creating 900 jobs.

Who says the auto industry doesn’t do politics? To be fair, Ford did revise the details of what Flat Rock would produce, but the net effect on the site is the same: the Blue Oval gets to reap the presidential PR benefit as GM keeps getting whacked for its plan to close Lordstown Assembly Plant in northeast Ohio.

"What's going on with General Motors," Trump asked during an appearance Wednesday at the United Auto Workers-represented Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, an Army tank plant in Lima. "Get that plant open."

It's not that simple. But the political gamesmanship between Detroit's two largest automakers is. Cutting shifts, idling plants and moving to close them is always heated and emotional, but a president pinning his re-election on promises to restore manufacturing jobs in the industrial Midwest that delivered him to the White House is raising the stakes exponentially.

Trump is watching, and he's not particularly interested in the complex explanations justifying GM's plan to close four U.S. plants. Or in the contract language obligating both sides to wait until formal UAW-GM negotiations to determine the fate of the plants and the hourly workers who can vote.

Securing political advantage is critical for the companies, so long as Trump wields a bully pulpit. Think it was coincidence that Ford chose the day of Trump's swing through Ohio — home to the Lordstown plant whose plight fueled his Twitter rant over the weekend — to re-tout its EV investments in Flat Rock?

Of course not. Trump again took to Twitter to prove the politics ensnaring GM and Ford: "Great news from @Ford! They're investing nearly $1 BILLION in Flat Rock, Michigan for auto production on top of a $1 BILLION investment last month in a facility outside of Chicago. Companies are pouring back into the United States — they want to be where the action is!"

There are no coincidences in politics. There is intention, calculation and point-scoring, all in the service of a generalized effort to diminish the adversary, curry favor with would-be supporters or both. In the forming battle for the hearts and minds of the work-a-day Midwest, Detroit's automakers are proxies personally selected by POTUS.

And the battlefield is Ohio and Michigan, whose plants last year built 17 percent of all the vehicles assembled in the United States. Trump theoretically could get re-elected president without carrying Michigan, which last November delivered the state's Big Three statewide offices to Democrats.

He likely wouldn't see a second term if he lost Ohio, too. Trump is president because he turned Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania red and because he won Ohio handily. But a recent Morning Consult poll showed Trump's net approval rating down 23 points in Michigan, down 20 points in Wisconsin, down 17 points in Pennsylvania and down 19 points in Ohio.

That's a big reason Trump keeps unloading on GM. Early Wednesday, GM pushed an email detailing a "jobs update" on its restructuring that it unambiguously tied to Ford making investment news that morning. Less than three hours later, Ford pushed its own press release saying Flat Rock would be the first U.S. site to build battery-electric vehicles.

Less than four hours later, GM reprised a now-familiar (and true) pitch: automakers invested nearly $82 billion in the United States between 2010 and 2018; of that, the Detroit Three automakers account for roughly $51.4 billion, with GM's share totaling $21 billion.

Necessary, that, if only because GM's government relations and comms shops rightfully suspected the president is predisposed to renewing his attacks on their plan to close Lordstown. That GM is growing jobs in other facilities in other states is irrelevant because the president's job promises focused on Michigan and Ohio, especially — not Indiana, Missouri and Texas, each more reliably Trump red.

If GM has a plant win to deliver, now would be a good time to deliver it — to repatriate a product that otherwise would have been built outside the United States and imported to GM's home market, to legitimize the talk of Auto 2.0 EVs with cold, hard investment, to show that lost jobs in Michigan and Ohio can be answered with fresh product for union members to build in the heartland.

But doing so will create a fresh new hell all its own, albeit one that will arrive and dissipate with the speed of social media laced with the customary tones of skepticism and contempt: 

Namely, that GM is moving because Trump pushed them to act. Or that GM had other Make-it-in-America options, but preferred to build in cheaper foreign countries and export back to the United States. Or that GM's obligations for receiving a federal bailout a decade ago include an obligation to keep building in America vehicles customers no longer want.

This is just beginning. The presidential race is percolating. The president's trade policies are delivering unintended consequences to some of the businesses he purports to want to help, with steel and aluminum tariffs costing GM and Ford $1 billion each per year. And it's still not clear whether Trump will make good on his threat to impose costly tariffs on imported cars and trucks.

If he does, his gateway back to the industrial Midwest and another term in the White House will get a lot narrower, fast. That's how this manufacturing thing works.

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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.