President Obama yesterday used an appearance at a Michigan vehicle battery plant to repeat a talking point familiar to voters and observers by now: Clean cars mean more jobs, less pollution and a big boost for a failing industry.
"Every day, hundreds of people are going to work on the technologies that are helping us to fight our way out of this recession," Obama said. "Every day, you're building high-tech batteries so that we lead the world in manufacturing the best cars and the best trucks.
"And that's how America will lead the world in automotive innovation and production and exports in this country," he added, to applause from employees at the plant, which used $468 million in federal and state stimulus money to rebuild and create some 150 jobs.
It's been a popular refrain for the administration, which in recent weeks has doubled down on highlighting the president's efforts to make cars more fuel-efficient. Yesterday's appearance came just two days after Obama announced the first-ever fuel economy standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
And even the trucks announcement was made just 11 days after Obama, flanked by the heads of the country's major automakers, announced a plan to double fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars to 54.5 mpg by 2025, which he called "the single most important step we've ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."
This year alone, Obama has made five public appearances dedicated solely to clean cars, in addition to several speeches on energy independence that mentioned the effort. Those come on the heels of a round of speeches at clean car factories last summer and White House appearances to announce three rounds of fuel efficiency standards.
The reason, observers say, is simple: Clean cars have been an economic bright spot for the administration.
"It's very clear that the policy makes a lot of sense across the political spectrum, and it's very clear that it's very tangible proof of how an environmental policy can go hand-in-hand with economic policy," said Roland Hwang, transportation director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Hwang's group, along with the United Auto Workers and the National Wildlife Federation, published a report earlier this week that found that the clean car industry was already supporting 151,168 jobs across 43 states and the District of Columbia. Those jobs were especially concentrated in Michigan and Ohio, key election battleground states and frequent stops for Obama for touting the potential of federal investments (E&ENews PM, Aug. 9).
While the national unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent, nobody could blame the White House for focusing on a sector that has created jobs with the help of government policies promoting hybrid and electric cars. In fact, one White House official said, the clean car message takes on an even greater significance because of Obama's role in rescuing General Motors and Chrysler from bankruptcy with a bailout in 2009.
"Think back a couple of years when it wasn't clear whether all of the domestic auto manufacturers would survive," White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley said in an interview. Think back "to how fundamental that is to our economy, not only our national economy but regional economies. And part of their resurgence is a focus on new technologies and on fuel-efficient cars."
Sutley, who just wrapped up a tour of outdoor recreation and forest projects in Oregon, added that the autos focus is part of the president's larger messaging around the clean energy economy.
"He really does believe this is what we have to invest in to keep our economy strong and prosperous into the future," she said. "This is the way the world is going, and we're in a global race for clean energy. Transportation is a part of it, and how we produce electricity, how we use electricity and use energy is another part of it."
Skeptics say that paying attention to the 150 jobs created at Johnson Controls Inc. facilities in Michigan and Wisconsin comes at the expense of the millions of job losses across the country.
"Certainly we need jobs like they've got in Holland, Michigan, at the battery plant. But those aren't going to make up for the millions of jobs that auto workers lost because the economy went into the tank," said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani. "It doesn't make up for the coal jobs that coal workers are going to lose over EPA regulations that are basically regulating coal out of business.
"Are they barking up one of the right trees when they talk about clean energy jobs? Absolutely they are ... but that to the detriment of everything else is not a well-rounded policy," Maisano added.
Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow on environmental studies with the libertarian Cato Institute, said Obama's appearances were a sign that he was "keeping campaign promises" and being aggressive on clean vehicles. But Michaels questioned the notion that they would, in the long run, help bring back the auto industry.
"It's a bet on the president's part that this technology is going to take off and that there's going to be a large demand," Michaels said. The 2025 fuel economy standard "is very ambitious, and whether it can be done remains to be seen."
In fact, Michaels said that while there was certainly job creation going on now, the pressure put on the auto industry to market and sell hybrid or electric cars could eventually lead to a huge sales drop amid withering demand. That, he said, would end up hurting the industry in the long run.
Of course, it's no secret that the clean-car appearances have come in vital election battleground states like Michigan and Ohio. Last summer, Obama appeared at a separate facility in Holland, a 650,000-square-foot battery factory, to tout the jobs created there thanks to a $151 million government grant. This June, Obama spoke at a Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, and he has made similar pitches in Indiana and Missouri.
The appearance comes as Obama's poll numbers have dipped in Rust Belt states. According to a July Quinnipiac University poll, Obama has just a 46 percent approval rating in Ohio, although he leads a list of Republican challengers in popularity. In Michigan, meanwhile, a July EPIC-MRA poll reported that he was trailing Republican challenger Mitt Romney is the polls, while his approval rating hovered at 47 percent.
That, Michaels said, signals the importance of highlighting job creation in the auto industry, whether it's clean cars or traditional gas-powered technology.
"Michigan is a very key state in the next election, and his numbers don't look real favorable," Michaels said. "Detroit is ... really depressed, and having something to show there is critically important."
Reporter John McArdle contributed.