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Obama To Highlight Auto Industry Success In State Of The Union


Tonight, President Obama will give his last State of the Union address. And one thing he'll highlight is the resurgence of the American auto industry. That industry hit record sales in 2015. That's cause for big celebration right now at the big auto show in Detroit. NPR's Sonari Glinton looks at the president's impact on the car industry.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Almost exactly one year ago, in the run-up to that year's State of the Union, President Obama did what he's often done and what he'll likely do tonight - congratulate himself on saving the car business.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When I ran for president, I wasn't expecting to have to do this. But I ran not to be just doing the popular things. I ran to do the right thing. And saving the American auto industry was the right thing to do.


OBAMA: Betting on you was the right thing to do.

DEBBIE STABENOW: First of all, I would say that the president has every right to take a victory lap.

GLINTON: Democrat Debbie Stabenow is the senior senator from Michigan.

STABENOW: He was there when there was a strong sentiment on the other side to just let the American automobile industry go.

GLINTON: Now, the bailout got started during the Bush administration and continued under the president. Chrysler was the company closest to the brink, and eventually it was bought by Fiat, becoming Fiat-Chrysler Group. Since the bailout, Fiat-Chrysler has become the fastest-growing car company in America. Reid Bigland is with Fiat-Chrysler. He says the administration drove a very hard bargain during the bailout.

REID BIGLAND: Well, I think we've kept up our end of the bargain, if you look at the number of people that we have hired in this country. We've created significant jobs - a big part of the revitalization of the Motor City. So I think it's worked out well for the government. And it's worked out well for us. And it's certainly worked out well for the American people.

GLINTON: General Motors came through the bailout a stronger company. It's kind of hard to find a car executive who will say anything bad in public or on the mic, at least, about the Obama administration. GM CEO Mary Barra's like the other Detroit executives - very, very careful to express gratitude for the bailout, even years later.

MARY BARRA: General Motors will be forever grateful to both the United States government and the Canadian government for supporting us. And we've worked really hard with award-winning projects like this - the jobs, the investment we've made back into the United States. And so again, I think it's - it was a good investment. And we're grateful.

GLINTON: The bailout is only half the story. One of the things the Obama administration did was demand higher fuel goals. Devin Lindsay is an analyst with IHS Automotive. He says setting the CAFE, or fuel standards, at 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025 is pushing Detroit to plan ahead.

DEVIN LINDSAY: Well, we're seeing that because of these standards, manufacturers know they have to get there. And because of the amount of time it takes, these products need to be underway now so they can start getting some of that return on investment.

GLINTON: We talked to auto people. They bristle at being forced to spend billions on hybrids when the consumers seem to want trucks and SUVs.

BRIAN MOODY: You're getting into this point where the government is now saying, oh there, there, we know what's best for you. So therefore, just give all the power to us; we'll take care of it.

GLINTON: Brian Moody is an analyst with

MOODY: That's the one argument. On the other hand, when you have these rules in place - and the threat of stiffer regulations - I think that's when you start to see cars like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Bolt that are cars the average person can use and afford and at the same time is good for the environment.

GLINTON: Analysts say without the Obama administration, we probably wouldn't have the sheer number of hybrids and electrics. Now, whether consumers will eventually buy them or not - that's likely to be the Obama car legacy. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.