Government Motors 2.0: The Re-Politicization Of GM (From The Left)


Once more... with progress!

Once more… with progress!

To hear any General Motors exec since bankruptcy explain it, the post-bailout politicization of “Government  Motors” was the worst thing to happen to the firm since the Pontiac Aztek. After all, the post-rescue  partisan point-scoring was more than just bad PR: it threatened to undercut support with the conservative-leaning truck buyers who are the source of a huge percentage of GM’s global profits. And with the US Treasury selling the last of its GM stock in December, officially bringing the auto bailout to a final close,  GM finally had the opportunity to leave the “Government Motors” era behind and become just another automaker.  2014 was shaping up to be the year GM became just another car company.

Instead, GM opened 2014 with its freshly-appointed first female CEO enjoying a shout-out from the President at the State of the Union… followed by a wave of stories questioning whether said female CEO’s pay was on par with her predecessor Dan Akerson’s. GM has since “corrected misperceptions” about Barra’s total compensation ($14.4m, more than Akerson), but the wave of feminist blowback had already turned GM’s PR slam-dunk into an extended faceplant. Long used to playing the victim of partisan attacks, GM and the auto media establishment clucked at the “irresponsible” and “premature” “speculation” about Barra’s pay, blowing off left-wing concerns just as brusquely as they’d blown off perceived right-wing complaints about bailout policy for years. Just when it had a chance to truly start fresh, GM’s PR ineptitude and ingrained victim mentality seem bent on keeping  “Government Motors” on the political football field… this time, being tackled by the left.

Regardless of partisan motivation, questions about Mary Barra’s pay were inevitable in light of President Obama’s decision to address both Barra’s achievement and the persistence of a wage gap between men and women in his State Of The Union address. Perhaps GM had no idea that the topic would even come up, but that would have simply made it the responsibility of the President’s staff to vet Barra’s pay status. Both GM and the Obama Administration were prepared to benefit very publicly from both Barra and the Wage Gap as issues, but nobody asked if her pay was even set… or what impression the publicly-available information about it gives. Dismissing legitimate concerns about the optics of Barra’s pay following the State Of The Union was more than simply unfair to those expressing the concern, it showed that victim mentality its keeping GM from learning important lessons about its PR strategy.

The basic lesson is obvious: someone should have realized this would have been an issue, and GM should have finalized Barra’s compensation before putting her on the political stage. But the more important lesson is more subtle: GM’s pivot towards a “progressive” rebranding is not a no-brainer.

Having spent the better part of a decade as the punching bag of a surging populist Right, it’s no real surprise that GM has shifted towards the Left since the bailout, changing position on topics like Global Warming and leaving the right-leaning American Legislative Exchange Commission. One public olive branch to conservatives, sponsorship of a Chamber of Commerce “Free Enterprise Road Trip,” prompted what Buzfeed called a “troll” of the effort: a parody website billing itself as Faux Enterprise, which argued “Government Motors is the worst ambassador imaginable for free market vibrancy.” But with the nonstop attacks from the Professional Right mostly over as of the 2012 election (and certainly over by the Treasury’s exit), much of the glue that held GM and the Left together is gone from their relationship. The Barra backlash showed how weak the remaining bonds are.

Just as Obama’s reliance on GM’s post-bailout performance to establish his economic policy credentials drove the Government Motors backlash, GM’s burning  desire to rebrand itself as a “progressive” company in Obama’s image underlies the Barra controversy. After all, Akerson had made it clear that his choice of Mary Barra as his successor as CEO would “[instantly transform] the image of GM into that of a more progressive company.” As he explained it to the Detroit Athletic Club’s Executive Club

“About six months to a year ago, it started to really congeal in my mind: What better way to shake up how General Motors is viewed if we can diversify the management of the company?”

Both Akerson and Barra insist that her gender played role in her hiring, yet both seem well aware of the PR benefits of naming a female CEO. The fact that the timing of her promotion washed away news of the Treasury’s loss on the GM bailout and provided the President a seemingly perfect State Of The Union prop creates an undeniable appearance of cynical tokenism. It may have been mere oversight that Barra’s total compensation wasn’t finalized by the State Of The Union, but the broad public investigation into Barra’s pay, the “irresponsible and premature conversation” to use GM’s words, was no accident.

That’s because outside of the Union-Blue Midwest, General Motors is not a natural ally of the American Left. General Motors (and Detroit automakers more generally) has struggled to make sales gains with the so-called “liberal coastal elite” ever since the baby boomer generation took over, especially in the lucrative, liberal and trend-setting California market. These huge swathes of Blue America dutifully defended the bailout, despite their personal decisions to not buy GM products, under the assumption that it was simply an emergency economic measure. When Obama latched on to  Akerson’s vision of Barra as exemplar of GM’s new “progressive” orientation, he signaled that his relationship with GM would outlive the bailout that so much of his base saw as a necessary and temporary evil. When the optics of Barra’s pay reinforced the appearance of tokenism, budding disillusionment with a lame duck president melded with underlying distrust of GM and drove the controversy onward.

But the Barra kerfluffle was just the first shuddering jolt of this emerging political fault line, and it may not yet be over. The next crack is already forming, and threatens to be far larger. An advertisement for the Cadillac ELR portraying a swaggering, jingoistic electric car owner has raised eyebrows among environmentalists and green car advocates, who question whether GM understands the market for green cars. Left-leaning environmentalists gave GM’s Chevy Volt a polite reception while it was under fire from the Right, but with that common cause gone and Volt sales consistently disappointing, green car afficionados and environmentalists have little reason to defend a firm that still relies on truck and SUV profits for survival. Questionable advertisement aside, the $75k ELR, which offers half the seats, horsepower and range of a Tesla Model S, is exactly the kind of embarrassment environmentalists now no longer feel compelled to defend. As the alreadythin green veneer on the auto bailout fades, environmental groups pose perhaps the biggest threat to GM’s progressive strategy.

The fact that GM can’t fully empower Mary Barra (because she has no finance experience, if for no other reason) any more than it can give up big pickups and SUV profits shows that the “progressive image” GM seeks will always be just that: an image.  Which means there will always be opportunities for the reality and the image to diverge dramatically, sparking backlash against self-serving use of deeply-held political values. With the more industry-friendly GOP poisoned by “Government Motors,” every time GM overplays its hand with progressives it hastens the day when it becomes a political liability to both sides of the partisan divide. When that day comes, perhaps GM will simply declare itself a victim of the entire American political system and relocate to China… which, ironically, is probably what would have happened if the bailout had never occurred in the first place.