Obama speaking at a Chrysler assembly plant (Credit: AP... Obama speaking at a Chrysler assembly plant (Credit: AP).
When President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney face off in their first debate in Denver this evening, they will likely talk about jobs and business across the entire economy. But if the candidates hold to form, the one industry that will get the most chatter is the U.S. auto industry.

Since the Fall of 2008, even before President Obama was sworn in, the U.S. auto industry has been at the center of the country's political debate and division.

President Bush initiated a Federal bailout of General Motors, Chrysler and auto suppliers in late 2008 with loans to keep the companies afloat while the rest of the economy was tanking. Ford did not require the same aid. President Obama approved use of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds to help GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy in mid 2009 after Congress failed to come up with an aid package. Governor Romney was an opponent of a government rescue of the auto industry, and instead advocated government-guaranteed loans that would be made by banks and private equity firms.

Despite the successful comeback of General Motors, Chrysler, Ford and the auto parts companies, the issue of whether the Obama White House acted properly and fairly in rescuing the auto industry remains the most concrete example and event, other than tax policy, about the economy and job creation on which the candidates can be compared and on which they disagree.

"I think we can expect to hear the auto bailout brought up in Denver," said former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, and current Obama campaign adviser on MSNBC.

Vice President Joe Biden has made, "General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead," a secondary campaign slogan.

Romney opposed auto rescue

The argument that Mitt Romney has tried to make in opposing the bailout is that President Obama "wasted" $20 billion in the auto bailout that could have been used for teachers and police. "My view was General Motors should have gone into bankruptcy earlier. The president resisted that for six months," Romney said last month on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I said, 'Let them go into bankruptcy. Help them come out. But let them go in.' And I don't think most Americans know that GM went bankrupt."

The White House has countered that the bailout, which will cost taxpayers an estimated $26 billion, protected 1.1 million jobs and set up the auto sector to hire back more workers, which it has been doing. The final price-tag is actually tough to arrive at, because it does not take into account the taxes that hundreds of thousands of auto industry employees have paid and will pay for years, or the savings in government benefits that would have been spent on the unemployed.

General Motors and Chrysler have paid back loans made by the Federal and Canadian governments, granted to help the companies get through bankruptcy in 2009. The government still owns 26% of GM's shares, and has not sold them yet because the automaker's stick is trading well below its initial public offering price. It is widely believed that both President Obama or President Romney will sell the government's GM stake next year.

The rescue divided a nation

Taxpayer ownership of GM has been a dividing issue among Democrats and Republicans since the debate took place in early 2009, and since.

Obama's auto task force used a section under the bankruptcy code to use taxpayer money to buy the "good assets" of GM and Chrysler in bankruptcy by outbidding anyone else, allowing the companies to exit bankruptcy in just 40 days.

If Romney's plan had been followed, though, GM and Chrysler would likely have been in bankruptcy for several months or even years before exiting, would have had much more debt on their balance sheets and probably lost legions of customers.

Angry dealers

The Obama plan also allowed GM and Chrysler to close about 2,000 dealerships. Both auto companies have been "over-dealered" in most markets for years, which makes them less competitive against Japanese companies like Toyota and Honda whose dealership networks are much more efficient. But effected car dealers, backed by tough franchise laws designed to favor them, bitterly complained and Republicans have advocated on their behalf.

High voltage driving

The other issue that may well come up in the debate is electric cars and whether the government should be paying consumers to buy them. Cars like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf cost North of $30,000, but there is a $7,500 federal tax credit that knocks down the net price. Republicans, Romney included, do not believe the tax-payer should be subsidizing specific kinds of cars, while President Obama has said he wants to hike the credit to $10,000 to encourage more consumers to buy electric vehicles.

Why more EVs? A bigger penetration of electric vehicles, as well as natural gas vehicles, will make utility companies competitive with oil companies as far as powering the country's fleet of cars. Not only is that good for pricing of energy, but it can in the long run make the U.S. less dependent on foreign sources of oil if the country can tap coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants to power automobiles.

These issues will play better for President Obama in key swing states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania where he is enjoying a lead in the polls. Those states have huge bases of jobs devoted to the auto industry, including parts plants and steel mills. Romney's small government, anti-auto bailout position will buttress his position with his Republican base, but does not win him many votes in other swing states such as Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and North Carolina.

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