At auto show, Washington gets close-up look at investment

Ford swept the 2010 North American Car and Truck Awards at the Detroit auto show, while General Motors and others showed off concept vehicles to gauge consumer interest and even hint at future vehicles.
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

DETROIT -- Forget the latest turbocharged engine or aerodynamic design. The star attraction Monday at the North American International Auto Show was the spectacle of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, with a bevy of other Washington officials touring the show.

Encircled by boom mikes and cameras, the group from Washington tried plugging in the new Chevy Volt, the electric car from General Motors. They traipsed across the convention center to review Chrysler's new power trains. Then they got behind the wheel of the Ford Focus.

More than anything that was said or done, however, the tour and the attention it garnered reflected the new relationship between the industry and the government, which has invested more than $80 billion in propping it up.

"We've seen ideas turned into policy turned into product," Pelosi said approvingly after seeing the Volt.

Her trip through the exhibition hall here resembled a car-shopping expedition, except that instead of the usual salesmen, the Washington group was cajoled by chief executives and board chairmen: Edward E. Whitacre Jr. from General Motors, Bill Ford Jr. and Alan Mulally from Ford, and Chrysler's Sergio Marchionne.

The government's nurturing of the U.S. auto industry, Pelosi and other Democrats hope, will create more U.S. jobs.

"What we're seeing today is a renaissance," she said during a luncheon.

Through the bailouts, emissions-control legislation, health-care debate and trade agreements, the federal government can exert profound influence on all of the automakers. But the outfit with arguably the most at stake is General Motors, into which the government has invested $50 billion. The government has also become the company's majority shareholder.

Before meeting Pelosi and the others, GM chief executive Whitacre said he had planned to tell them that "they made a great investment in GM."

"The government's investment is well placed, and I think they will make a lot of money," Whitacre told reporters.

Still, not everyone was so enamored with the government's involvement.

About two dozen "tea party" protesters -- activists who advocate lower taxes and less government -- endured the cold and snow here Monday morning to register their dissent.

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