U.S. presidents have long had a heavy hand on the wheel when it comes to guiding the course of the auto industry
For better or worse, presidential politics and influence have been inexorably entwined with the U.S. automobile business since the first horseless carriage displaced a horse and buggy, and this election year is no exception.
If history is any indication, there’s little doubt the long-term future of the domestic auto industry will be directly affected by whomever occupies the Oval Office over the next four years.
“The U.S. automotive industry, in its current framework, has been strongly affected by the legislative initiatives and mandates of several American presidents over the last century,” says Thomas Schwartz, presidential historian and professor of history at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. “Their actions have not only shaped the cars we drive and roads we travel but have profoundly influenced the overall American economy as well.”
To help underscore the presidency’s ongoing connection with what’s arguably the country’s signature manufacturing sector, the collectible-car insurance company Hagerty Insurance recently compiled a list of course-altering presidential influences on the auto industry. Here’s a few of the most significant auto-related accomplishments brought forth by assorted commanders-in-chief, with our own embellishment:
• Interstate Highway System (1956). Dwight Eisenhower established this 41,000-mile system of interconnected highways with federal security in mind, but in the process he made the family road trip a practical reality.
• Department of Transportation (1966). Signed into creation by Lyndon Johnson on October 15, 1966, the DOT was established to coordinate transportation policies and systems throughout the U.S., including the authority to set national standards for fuel economy.
• Highway Safety Act and National Traffic / Motor Vehicle Safety Act (1966). Lyndon Johnson enacted these bills in response to a rising tide of highway casualties; they established national safety standards for motor vehicles and roads.
• Environmental Protection Agency (1970). Seven months after celebrating the nation’s first Earth Day, Richard Nixon and Congress created the EPA to research, set standards and enforce policy to ensure a cleaner and healthier environment. Among its duties, the EPA was charged with establishing tailpipe emissions standards for passenger cars.
• Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act (1974). Signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1974 following the OPEC oil embargo that created lines at filling stations and drove up gas prices, one of this bill’s most onerous provisions mandated a national speed limit of 55 mph to help cut fuel consumption.
• Corporate Average Fuel Economy (1975). Following an extended period of fuel shortages and rising gas prices, Gerald Ford signed into law the Energy Policy and Conservation Act in 1975 that contained the first-ever federal fuel economy regulations. Automakers, particularly the domestics, howled over having to meet the new standards, which were initially set at (by today’s standards a meager) 18 mpg for model-year 1978 passenger cars.
• Chrysler Bailout (1979). Setting the stage for an even greater bailout three decades later, Jimmy Carter granted troubled Chrysler federal loan guarantees of $1.5 billion in an effort to keep the company from going under, and perhaps dragging the nation’s then-faltering economy with it. Chrysler would repay its debt several years early in 1983, with the government realizing a $350 profit.
• Chrysler and General Motors Bailout (2008-2009). The failing economy, tightening credit and evaporating new-car sales dealt a resounding blow to the auto industry late in 2008, leaving Chrysler and General Motors on the ropes and in need of immediate financial CPR. George W. Bush jumped in with a first round of financial support, with Barack Obama following through after being sworn into office with added assistance to the tune of $80 billion. Both companies would restructure and eventually prosper, albeit with Chrysler being operated and largely owned by Italy’s Fiat Group and the government still holding around a third of all stock in the “new” GM.
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