Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Toyota and Obama

Remember when Toyota was the best car company on the planet? They made great cars, stylish automobiles that worked well, didn't have many problems, and got great gas mileage. It was just a better company than any American car company. When was that? Oh, yeah, a couple of months ago. How long had that idea been firmly planted in America's cultural consciousness? 25, 30 years? Something like that.

Amazing how a narrative can change overnight, isn't it? In a month or so, Toyota has gone from being a great company, one of those uniquely special companies that do almost everything right, to just another company, with its share of dysfunctionality, arrogance, and just plain stupidity.

Remember when Obama's presidency was in trouble? A Republican won a special election in Massachusetts, after a couple of Republicans won gubernatorial races in 2009, and suddenly Republicans had the momentum, and Democrats, particularly Obama, were in trouble.

I am so not worried about Obama. Really, really, really not worried about Obama. Tomorrow is the start of the health care summit. I don't know what's going to happen, but I am starting to get the sense that Obama and the Democrats are going to take advantage of the fact that, you know, they have massive majorities in Congress to pass legislation that they want. Great idea.

Obama is also taking advantage of the fact that, you know, he's president and all, and he has a lot of power to get what he wants through a Congress with both houses held by his party by those massive majorities.

But a couple of the reasons for my optimism about Obama stem from Toyota's current trials and tribulations. First, Toyota's fall from the pedestal reminds us of how fickle media/cultural narratives can be. Toyota isn't a very different company from what it was 3, 4, 5, or even 10 years ago. Most of the problems that have been cropping up have been happening for years. But something clicked, and suddenly the narrative changed. There were some stories about problems with Toyotas and sudden acceleration (the LA Times, to its great credit, was working on this story for months before it hit the rest of the national media). The suddenly there were stories about other problems with Toyotas. Then suddenly there were stories about how Toyota has serious structural problems, or how the management team has its share of incompetence and arrogance. All of those things were true for years. But something changed, and now people are willing to listen to those stories. Comedians crack jokes about Toyota, and politicians call them on the carpet. Someday the narrative will change again, and Toyota will have recovered from these episodes, and come out swinging, or they will be back on top again, or something.

The same thing has happened, and will happen, to Obama. His campaign, election, and inauguration were historical, and very hyped. The letdown was inevitable. The narrative has changed, but it will change again, just like it has for Toyota. The Democrats lost two governor's races, in Virginia and New Jersey. But neither of these were surprising, and neither really points to a national trend for or away from Dems. Virginia is a fairly conservative place, and, in New Jersey, the Democrat incumbent, Jon Corzine, was a former chairman of Goldman Sachs, rather substantial baggage right now. Scott Brown won a special election, but my impression is that Martha Coakley didn't run a great campaign, and Democrats took victory for granted.

There's also a specific reason why Toyota's stretch of bad news has implications for Obama. What's bad for Toyota is good for GM, Ford, and Chrysler. GM and Ford will pick up sales from disillusioned Toyota customers.

More importantly, but less substantive, GM, Ford, and Chrysler's reputations will start to recover. For years many people made a clear national distinction among car companies: American car companies were arrogant and incompetent; they couldn't make cars the way the Japanese companies could. There was, of course, an element of truth to that myth - the Big Three made most of their money on their big trucks, while the Japanese made solid, if not very exciting, small cars and sedans.

One detail that got lost in that mythologizing is that each of the Big Three has at least one iconic car in its stable. GM has the Corvette, Ford has the Mustang and the Lincoln Town Car, and Chrysler has Jeep. Each of those has been around for decades, and each has many, many hardcore, devoted followers.

I don't think the Japanese have some genetic predisposition for making better cars; I think the Big Three had each reached the point of being so bureaucratic that they were not very capable of being particularly innovative, while the Japanese companies were still smaller, more nimble, and more entrepreneurial.

Note my use of the word "were" referring to the Japanese. Toyota clearly has some problems with arrogance and failing to acknowledge voices of dissent.

All of this is significant for Obama, because Obama made the decision to save GM and Chrysler, and spent billions of dollars on doing so. People in Detroit had known for years about the problems afflicting GM: too many brands, too many models, too many dealerships. The problem was that no one at GM had the power to solve the problems. Even the chairmen couldn't close the brands they needed to get rid of, or close the excess dealerships. It took the power of the President of the United States to make that happen.

But Obama did it. He saved GM, and he saved - for now, at least - Chrysler. As Toyota's sales fall with its reputation, the reputation of the Big Three will start to improve. GM still has a lot of issues to deal with, and a lot of detritus to purge from its system. It will take some time for it to close down Pontiac and Saturn, and to sell Hummer and Saab. Those old dealerships will eventually be transformed into new buildings, but that will take time, as well.

Once all of those things happen, however, GM will be a leaner machine. Same with Chrysler. They will start once again making good cars that customers want to buy, and they will start making money. And many, many people will be working at them. Most of those people will be Americans.

And Barack Obama will be able to claim that he saved General Motors and Chrysler, and, with them, hundreds of thousands of American jobs. To say nothing of pride in American manufacturing.

And he will have done it with virtually no Republican help, and in the face of strong opposition from Republicans.

Really, really, really not worried about Obama.

No comments: