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Detroit automakers have a friend in Trump, right?

Apr 7, 2018

President Donald Trump’s relationship with Detroit’s auto industry is complicated. Look at the past week.

On Monday, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency said that it would consider easing Obama-era fuel economy standards. For an industry selling more and more pickups and SUVs, that’s exactly what automakers, foreign and domestic, wanted to hear.

The Motor City’s ties with President Donald Trump could strain if trade tensions begin to hurt the economy, says Daniel Howes of The Detroit News.
Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

Why? Because meeting future targets is increasingly expensive. And because the world isn’t quickly moving electric, especially annoying U.S. consumers who think for themselves.

Low gas prices help. The flexibility of small, medium and large SUVs helps. So do the improved gas mileage and cleaner emissions delivered by modern engines.

Enter the EPA, which says it’s open to revising the rules, probably downward.

Time for popping champagne corks in Detroit, right? Not exactly.

Public gloating would be dumb, considering Detroit’s Three automakers are doubling-down on America’s shift to pickups and SUVs. None want to be seen mocking the environmental credentials they’re trying to build through more hybrids, electric powertrains and visions of a zero-emissions world.

Yes, they’re trying to have it both ways – thanks to the most Detroit-auto-industry-friendly president to occupy the Oval Office in decades. Right? Maybe. The Trump EPA is on a collision course with California and the dozen states that follow its emissions rules – the same parts of the country Detroit wants to reclaim with new products.

Not exactly a good place to be for General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler.

Neither is standing in the middle of the president’s building trade war with China. Officially, the administration says its proposed tariffs on Chinese-built goods are not the opening act to a transpacific trade war. They’re designed to shield average American consumers from the pain.

Not so much the Chinese response. It’s aimed pretty squarely at the industrial heartland and the voters who helped put Trump in the White House. Few politicians pay more attention to their base with more devotion than Trump. That’s precisely why the Chinese are targeting American autos, soybeans and other commodities produced in Red States: to hit the president’s base hard.

And it’s why the president is ordering his trade representative to consider another one hundred billion dollars in tariffs on Chinese goods. He wants to show the base, and China, presumably, that he’s tough. And to complain that China is, quote, “unfair.”

The president’s tough-guy-on-trade routine is a leadership test he is giving himself. And they’re watching in foreign capitals like Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang, as well as in executive suites in Detroit, Tokyo and Silicon Valley. How Trump bargains and whether he delivers deals will become the standard others use to judge him.

The Chinese are not stupid. Neither are American consumers.

If Trump’s trade skirmish with China escalates into a trade war, and if the reverberations start hitting their wallets and 401(k) statements, they’ll say so. The last thing Trump wants a Democratic challenger asking Michigan voters is, “Who cost you your job?”

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.