Auto industry roars back, everyone cheers (except anti-government conservatives)

I’d like to add some thoughts to Charles Blow’s entertaining and informative blog post about Karl Rove and Chrysler’s “It’s halftime in America” Super Bowl ad. The little dust storm over the commercial is fun to watch, and the public’s reaction—which has been overwhelmingly positive—tells me that Americans might be ready, at long last, to appreciate the single most effective economic intervention of the Obama administration, the rescue of the domestic auto industry.

For those who missed it, the commercial (watch below) has Clint Eastwood narrating scenes of the rebirth of Detroit, both the city and its industry, which were weak from decades of decline and, as Eastwood says, knocked down, but not out, by the Great Recession.

Today, the city’s in worse shape than the industry, but the automakers’ new plants, new models, sales revival and new jobs have created a sense of hope for a lot of people who have seen rock bottom. Against all the odds, Chrysler Corporation, which was not just knocked down, but was declared clinically dead by most experts five years ago, had the strongest year-over-year U.S. sales increase in January and continues to gain market share. Ford and General Motors both posted huge profits last year, and GM regained its place as the world’s auto sales leader.

This nearly miraculous, feel-good story has made conservatives dyspeptic. Mitt Romney and most Republicans in Congress opposed the federal government’s loans and restructuring of GM and Chrysler. They were happy to saddle President Obama with the catastrophic job losses that would have resulted. The Center for Automotive Research forecast the loss of 2.5 million jobs and EPI’s Rob Scott estimated the losses would range between 2.5 and 3 million jobs, while Moody’s Analytics’ Mark Zandi estimated the damage at about 1.5 million jobs.

Conservative opponents like Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and even Zandi, who supported the rescue plan, predicted that the rescue would end up costing taxpayers upwards of a hundred billion dollars. They assumed the initial loans would not be repaid and would lead to additional loans when the companies failed to meet their sales and revenue targets.¹ They were wrong. Totally, absolutely wrong. Zandi has, at least, been forthright that things turned out far better than he feared.

Nevertheless, because TARP funds were used to save the auto companies, and because TARP is still widely reviled, most Americans opposed the rescue as just another corporate “bailout.” It didn’t help that the Big 3 were unpopular and their executives were tone deaf and overpaid. Add to this mix a right-wing effort to discredit the United Auto Workers and blame it for the industry’s woes, and it’s easy to see why President Obama has had trouble making people understand what a dramatic success his (and George W. Bush’s) policy has been. What should have been a huge re-election asset has been viewed as a liability, even in Michigan and Ohio!

But maybe the public does get it now. If they do, Rove and Fox News will have every reason to choke on a commercial that never mentions the government or Obama but celebrates the fact that a key U.S. industry just might win the second half.

¹As EPI’s Robert Scott points out, the rescue made both fiscal and policy sense, even if the loans were never repaid.