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US auto industry more than a Twitter target for President Trump

Jan 28, 2017

Nearly half the country may have found the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency full of depressing news, but Detroit arguably shouldn’t be one of them.

The CEOs of this town’s three automakers had breakfast in the White House on just his second work day in office,and they came away “extremely positive.”

At least that’s how one ranking industry executive described the results of the hour-long meeting.

And why wouldn’t they be? The candidate who repeatedly bashed General Motors and Ford Motor for making cars in Mexico was all about cooperation and partnership. How could both sides collaborate on corporate tax cuts and regulatory reform? How could the automakers help reshape trade deals, presumably to the advantage of American workers and their employers?

All they have to do is keep adding jobs at home and preferably build any new plants that may be on the horizon right here in the U.S. That’s less likely than multi-billion-dollar investments in the industry’s next new thing: next-generation mobility and hybrid product development.

But if Team Trump can deliver the economic reboot of its promises, and if the booming stock market really does signals faster growth ahead, chances are better than just a few months ago that automakers will build more cars and trucks here at home.

It’s an easy trade-off for the automakers. Investing at home is as much good politics as it is good business. Anyone who thinks Trump summoning of the CEOs of GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler to the White House is some form of presidential punishment simply isn’t paying attention to his proposed transactions and to the smiles all around.

This is opportunity. David Cole at the Center for Automotive Research says the meetings “are very good news” for the automakers. That, by definition, makes them very good news, too, for southeast Michigan’s economy.

Good thing: A new study by the Detroit Regional Chamber says the 11-county region is showing steady signs of improvement – in job creation and per-capita income, in declining vacancy rates and increasing home values, in GDP growth and patent registrations.

Yes, patents. You know, those deeply technical certifications that determine who invented what first and who is innovating. Detroit leads the nation in mobility-related patents – more than twice those registered in the heart of Silicon Valley. Oh, and Ann Arbor? Its patent total exceeded those of Boston and New York City combined.

Shows you what leadership and vision, bankruptcy and a federal bailout, can do when combined with the hard work of a whole lot of people and the discipline to break old bad habits.

It’s time to bury the metaphorical poster depicting Detroit as the epicenter of American industrial decline. Seven years of climbing back from the edge of collapse are producing meaningful progress. And that can only produce more momentum if economic growth accelerates, auto sales stay strong and people realize that progress isn’t given.

It must be earned, repeatedly.

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.