Biden campaign plans to hit Trump over auto job promises

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign is hoping to open a new front in the battle for Michigan this November by attacking President Donald Trump's handling of auto jobs. 

Biden's campaign held a roundtable discussion Friday morning with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, and Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. The topic of conversation was the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's plan to create 1 million jobs in auto manufacturing, auto supply chains and auto infrastructure.

From left, Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Gov.  Gretchen Whitmer and Cory Booker at the Joe Biden campaign event at Renaissance High School in Detroit on Mar. 9, 2020.

The Biden campaign has been running ads on his jobs initiative and plans to hold auto industry-focused events in the coming months. The campaign argues the former vice president's record on the subject, including his involvement in the 2009 auto bailout, gives him a strategic advantage over the incumbent. Biden also has been endorsed by the United Auto Workers.

Biden and former President Barack Obama "helped save more than a million American auto jobs during the Great Recession," said Eric Hyers, Michigan state director for Biden for President.

"Michiganders are fed up with Donald Trump’s failed policies that have put the wealthy and well-connected first and Michigan’s workers last, and they’re ready for a president who tells them the truth, has their backs and knows what it will take to build our economy back better than it was before and create good-paying manufacturing jobs. That’s Joe Biden — and that’s a message we’re going to take directly to voters across Michigan."

In December 2008, President George W. Bush gave $25 billion in emergency loans to General Motors, Chrysler and their lending arms. President Barack Obama's administration lent another $55 billion before forcing GM and Chrysler through expedited bankruptcy proceedings that were intended to avoid even worse job losses at auto suppliers and other auto-related firms.

The federal government ended up losing about $9.26 billion on the loans. Under government accounting rules, the U.S. Treasury actually lost $16.56 billion on paper on the auto bailout because interest and dividends paid by borrowers — the automakers and finance companies — weren’t applied toward the principal owed.

Auto sales rose for seven consecutive years before dipping slightly to just above 17 million vehicles in 2019. The coronavirus pandemic has put a big dent in this year's sales.

But Trump's campaign argues it can use Biden's support of past trade agreements against the Democratic challenger. The president signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a replacement to the North American Free Trade Agreement, into the law in January, a move he's touted during a stop in Michigan in January.

The new agreement increased the percentage of parts originating from the United States, Canada or Mexico that automakers must produce to qualify for duty-free treatment.

"President Trump continues to fight for Michiganders with new trade deals like the USMCA and replace Joe Biden's disastrous NAFTA that destroyed over 43,000 Michigan jobs," said Chris Gustafson, spokesman for the Trump campaign in Michigan. "Meanwhile, the last time Joe Biden was in Michigan he insulted Michigan union workers saying they were 'full of s---.'"

The "full of s---" comment refers to an interaction Biden had with a construction worker at an auto plant in Detroit under construction for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in March. The worker said he heard Biden would take away guns. Trump has pointed to the new FCA plant as an auto industry gain under his administration.

Over the next four years, the automotive industry faces a critical transformation with an explosion in the number of electric nameplates available, continued investment in automated vehicles and the impact the shift could have on jobs.

Foremost, however, will be addressing the issues from economic uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic: whether government will coalesce around financial support for struggling suppliers; how the retail market will be impacted by high unemployment and retrenchment; whether business will be exposed to liability claims over COVID-19 claims; who — if anyone — will fund infrastructure improvements to support alternative propulsion systems; how trade policy will affect costs and investments.

“The industry is looking forward as they design vehicles, as they decide where to build vehicles,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto group. “What is the climate for increasing manufacturing jobs? Is there an opportunity for reshoring jobs?”

Amidst the uncertainty, automakers will be looking for uniform regulation at a national level and stability in policy when it comes to trade that affects their supply chains, carbon emission and fuel economy standards, and the deployment of automated technology.

"Car companies have long planning cycles with large, upfront investments," said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School. "That makes stable policies on tariffs and trade, labor and incentives for electric vehicles extremely important."

A Biden administration might be more likely to take a multi-nation approach to trade and pose the possibility of higher taxes for corporations, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. His administration could also push for stricter fuel economy requirements, which have lessened somewhat under Trump.

"It's hard to know how far that pendulum would swing" under Biden, Dziczek said. "They'd likely be more in line with Europe, China and California, so not completely out of the realm facing the companies in other markets."

In 2016, Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 10,704 votes in Michigan, becoming the first GOP presidential nominee to carry the state since 1988. He won over some unionized rank-and-file workers despite most union's support of Clinton. 

But Biden's backers contend Trump has failed to live up to promises he made on the campaign trail about auto manufacturing jobs. During a Grand Rapids rally in November 2016, Trump said he would bring back the automobile industry in Michigan "bigger and better and stronger than ever before."

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, motor vehicle jobs in Michigan have declined since the first months of Trump's term. In February 2016, the total of motor vehicle manufacturing jobs was 42,400, according to the bureau, but it hasn't grown past that mark.

Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat who's backing Biden, said he's been working with the former vice president for 40 years on auto-related policies. The 2009 rescue made "all of the difference in the world" for General Motors, Chrysler and their supplier network, Blanchard said.

"There never would have been any recovery in the Midwest without it," the former two-term governor said.

Trump has a complicated history on the 2009 auto rescue, which Democrats also slammed ahead of the 2016 election. Trump told The Detroit News in 2015 that GM and Chrysler could have been saved without government bailouts.

“I think it would have worked out the other way, too,” Trump said. “It would have been a free-market deal.”

However, in 2008, Trump backed the auto bailout, telling Fox News in December of that year that he supported a rescue.

“I think the government should stand behind them 100%. You cannot lose the auto companies," Trump said.

Trump's campaign this week held its own press call focused on Michigan. The topic of that event, featuring Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and former Attorney General Bill Schuette, was law enforcement. Trump has been endorsed by the Police Officers Association of Michigan.

Despite polling showing Trump behind Biden in Michigan, Schuette, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018, predicted the results in the state would end up being "brutally close."

"Whoever wins Michigan is going to be next president of the United States. It's that simple," Schuette said.

Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Breana Noble contributed.