Here are two people you won't find touring a General Motors plant during the
political season this fall: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
GM, saved by federal loans a few years ago, desperately wants to avoid becoming the centerpiece of campaign rhetoric. So it has banned candidates from its plants at least until after Election Day, Nov. 6, despite the fact that the U.S. Treasury remains its largest shareholder.
The Detroit car giant wants to be viewed as a success story -- not the arm of any campaign. After all, Democrats, Republicans and independents all buy vehicles.
"We would like to put all of our energy behind selling our cars and trucks," said Bob Ferguson, GM's vice president for global public policy. "It's an understatement to say we can't wait for November to get here."
GM and experts say the company has been intentionally less visible in lobbying on some federal issues and is, in effect, taking cover until the election is over.
But the company is stuck uncomfortably in a spotlighted middle after emerging from the Great Recession and its 2009 federally financed bankruptcy. The Treasury Department, which provided $49.5 billion to bail out GM, still owns 32% of the new GM's common stock, despite getting repaid more than $23 billion so far.
Obama takes credit for GM's survival, saying in February that the auto industry had added 200,000 jobs since 2009. But Romney tries to use the bailout against the president as a poor and expensive deal for taxpayers. The candidates are expected to continue bashing each other with the auto industry bailout and the ins and outs of GM's near-death and revival.
In Detroit on Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden sounded a now-familiar campaign refrain that makes GM executives cringe: "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive."
GM is branded "Government Motors" by Obama's critics but hailed by his supporters as a testament to his leadership in saving GM and Chrysler. The efforts began in the administration of President George W. Bush -- which GM CEO Dan Akerson is quick to point out.
The president's campaign is expected to make the auto bailout a key element of the Democratic National Convention during the first week of September in Charlotte, N.C.
Chrysler paid back all of its bankruptcy loans from the Treasury and has largely avoided becoming part of the political campaign debate, though the now-Italian-owned company did say on Thursday that it also has banned campaign visits to its facilities.
The Romney campaign has tried to turn the bailout to its advantage, accusing the president of bungling it by preserving UAW benefits at the expense of bondholders who lost billions.
His campaign also has noted the bailout wasn't good for everyone, running an ad in swing state Ohio noting that many dealers were hurt in the process by having their dealerships shut down or downsized.
But Romney has a potential bailout problem, too, ever since he penned a November 2008 op-ed for the New York Times that ran under the headline, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Even so, some have argued that Romney did push for a similar structured bankruptcy as was implemented by the Obama administration for GM and Chrysler and that he should share any credit.
Romney, a Michigan native and former Massachusetts governor, is slated to accept the Republican nomination for president this week at the GOP convention in Tampa.
When to sell shares?
Still, there are risks in taking too much credit for GM's survival, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was economic policy adviser to Republican nominee John McCain four years ago. The danger comes with the question of how much it's costing taxpayers across the country.
GM posted North American profits of $3.66 billion in the first six months of 2012, offsetting a $617-million loss in Europe. And on Friday, Fitch Ratings upgraded its credit rating, reflecting a vote of confidence GM could weather an unexpected downturn in the market.
But the stock is down 35.8% from its November 2010 initial public offering price of $33. And judging by Friday's close of $21.18, the government would lose $15.6 billion on the bailout if it sold its 500.1 million shares.
There's no easy way at present to deal with the shares, Holtz-Eakin said: "If they don't sell them, they're not really capitalists, they're socialists; and if they do sell them, and they sell them at a loss, they're bad capitalists."
Romney has said he would sell immediately, but analysts agree that he wouldn't pull the trigger on a plan to dump shares onto the market soon after taking office, which would push the stock even lower.
Ferguson, GM's vice president of global public policy, said the company has not had discussions with Romney about his comments.
"We've read what he said in the press," he said. "Of course, we're very in favor of an orderly but quick exit on behalf of the government. It would be a better day for everybody."
Avoiding the spotlight
For its part, GM has employed a duck-and-cover strategy in Washington until at least the election is over and shifted some focus to state issues, based on comments from officials and lobbying records.
GM's spending on lobbying in Washington fell 21.6% to $4.33 million in the first half of this year from $5.52 million in the first half of 2011, according to federal reports filed each quarter.
To be sure, the automaker still is actively lobbying on various federal tax issues, tariffs, energy issues and transportation regulations, including Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements, or CAFE standards. But it has chosen to be less vocal publicly about those issues.
"GM sees no purpose of taking on either party and just wishes the whole thing would go away and people would start treating them like a normal automobile company," said former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who now serves as a consultant for the company.
The company faces other political stresses, such as accusations by some conservatives that the Chevrolet Volt, an extended-range electric car, was created to satisfy Obama's desire for more green vehicles. The Volt was first introduced as a concept vehicle at the Detroit auto show in January 2007, two years before Obama took office, and it hit showrooms in fall 2010.
The company is well aware of the bailout's impact on its image.
"In America, it's pretty polarized -- 50% think it's a good idea, 50% think it's a bad idea," said Joel Ewanick in June while attending a conference in France. "Well that's really not a good thing when you're trying to sell cars to have 50% of your people saying, 'I'm not going to do it; I'd rather buy a Ford because of it.' "
Ewanick was recently fired as GM's global chief marketing officer for unrelated issues.
Auto rescue tale spin
Whether GM can successfully avoid the spotlight this fall is questionable. With a sluggish economy and an unemployment rate of 8.3% in July, the auto bailout is a bright spot for Obama, and highlighting it a key campaign strategy.
"I think it will be prominent in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois," said former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat. He said it will serve the president nationwide as "a metaphor for how you treat people whose jobs are threatened."
The president trumpeted the auto bailout no fewer than 20 times in the first 20 days of August, according to a review of transcripts. On the day of Michigan's Republican presidential primary in February, Obama was talking up the bailout before the UAW.
UAW President Bob King said the bailout will be just part of the union's message supporting the president, saying salaried and hourly workers recognize the second chance the government gave the company.
The Romney campaign has seized on big labor's role in the bailout. Critics point out that GM's European unit has been posting annual losses topping $1 billion, which means the company's North American operations are effectively funding the losses in Europe, where German unions appear to have a stranglehold on company plants.
And the company, while pulled back from the edge, still faces major challenges: It will lose money in Europe for the 13th straight year, it must fend off resurgent Japanese competitors in the U.S. and it faces a sluggish stock price that analysts say is still being weighed down by the government ownership.
GM, for its part, still must comply with a program of executive pay restrictions, which it says has hampered retention and recruitment of the best and brightest.
Obama supporters argue that even if the Treasury has to eventually sell GM stock at a loss, a $15-billion hit is a small price for saving GM's 77,000 U.S. employees and preventing a collapse of auto suppliers that could have crippled the industry.
"Philosophically, I was absolutely opposed to the idea of the government stepping in," said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. "But had we seen a collapse of the industry, which was right at the edge, it would have driven the entire economy into a depression. And basically from a practical standpoint, the cost of preventing that was dramatically lower than the cost of cleaning up a depression in the economy."
Effect on sales
Whether the political rhetoric levies a direct impact on the showroom floor is unclear.
Ferguson, GM's vice president for global public policy, said the company's internal research shows the bailout's impact is still visible on sales.
"But it's much diminished," he said. "I think most Americans have seen that General Motors is back on its feet and very profitable and making good products."
Morningstar analyst David Whiston said the impact is negligible. "Of course there are consumers that are angry about it and may never buy a GM car, but I just don't think it's big enough to be impacting their sales numbers."
Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said: "The honest answer is we won't know until we find out -- we'll see how the tone of it goes."
More Details: U.S. Treasury Department and GM, an uncomfortable
Amount government provided to GM in 2009 for bailout
Amount still owed
Number of common shares owned by U.S.
Percentage of GM common stock owned by U.S.
Approximate percentage of GM stock owned by U.S., if all outstanding warrants were exercised
GM stock at Friday close
GM stock at initial public offering in November 2010
Price GM stock would have to reach for government to break even
Amount U.S. would lose if it sold all GM stock today
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