The Other Issue That Could Make Or Break Michigan For Joe Biden

There's a reason Trump makes such a big deal about electric vehicles every time he comes here.
President Joe Biden speaks at the Community Building Complex of Boone County in Belvidere, Illinois, to herald the United Auto Workers contract agreement with Stellantis on Nov. 9, 2023.
President Joe Biden speaks at the Community Building Complex of Boone County in Belvidere, Illinois, to herald the United Auto Workers contract agreement with Stellantis on Nov. 9, 2023.
Chicago Tribune via Getty Images

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There’s no mystery about who will win Tuesday’s presidential primaries here in my home state of Michigan. But there’s some drama on the Democratic side, because of the push for “uncommitted” votes to demonstrate anger with President Joe Biden over his support for Israel’s actions in Gaza.

A substantial showing for “uncommitted” would raise the possibility that Biden is losing ground among two key groups, young progressives and Michigan’s substantial Arab-American population. It’s not clear exactly what would qualify as “substantial” — or even whether it will be possible to tell from Tuesday’s results. But if, say, tens of thousands of would-be supporters stay home in November, that could make a big difference in a state Biden won by only 150,000 in 2020. And there aren’t many winning electoral scenarios for Biden in 2024 that don’t include Michigan.

But Gaza isn’t the only issue that could undermine Biden’s chances here. You don’t even have to take my word for it. Just listen to his likely Republican opponent, former President Donald Trump, who was back in the Detroit suburbs this past Saturday and devoted a big, early chunk of his speech to Biden’s strong support of electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing.

“Crooked Joe has ordered a hit job on Michigan manufacturing with his insane electric vehicle mandate,” Trump said, referring to requirements that American automakers hit emission targets that will, over time, require shifting production from gas-powered cars and trucks over to EVs.

The supposed menace of the requirement (and EVs more generally) has been a staple of Trump campaign rhetoric for a while. It’s part of a broader attack on the Democratic Party’s environmental agenda, which Trump calls “the Green New Scam” and says will make life harder for everyday Americans.

In the case of EVs, it means pushing Americans toward cars and trucks that (in Trump’s telling) cost more, are less fun to drive and require charging that isn’t available when they need it. The appeal is one part pocketbook, one part identity ― i.e., red-blooded Americans drive cars that are big, loud and spew as much carbon as possible.

But in the midwest and especially in Michigan, home of the American auto industry, Trump has focused more on the manufacturing jobs that he says will disappear. Trump never really says exactly how this is going to happen, but the gist is clear enough: The mandate will force companies to lose money churning out vehicles that people don’t want, he says, leading eventually to layoffs and a loss of competitive advantage against companies in countries like China.

It’s not hard to see why this might resonate, especially in a part of the country where manufacturing jobs have been declining for decades ― and where workers learned long ago to be wary of hype about coming economic transformations. And while it’s easy to overstate how much economic anxiety has sent working-class voters to Trump, it’s possible to underappreciate its importance too.

So does Biden have an response to Trump’s EV attacks, and to the voters paying attention to them? Does he have a way to convey that response effectively?

I think the answer to the first question is yes ― and the answer to the second is maybe.

The Case Biden Can Make

Biden’s case begins with explaining the totality of what he is doing for the auto industry and its workers. That effort consists of a lot more than just setting new emissions rules to promote EV production. In fact, the more important piece is arguably what Biden has done to support EV jobs and to make sure those jobs stay here.

The centerpiece of those efforts is the Inflation Reduction Act, the massive energy and health care bill that Democrats passed on a party-line vote and Biden signed in 2022. It includes a group of programs that, one way or another, subsidize both the manufacturing of electric vehicles and the purchase of them by consumers.

It’s a massive injection of financial support, likely hitting $100 billion over the coming decade and possibly a good bit more. And it comes with important conditions attached: The money goes to parts and vehicles produced in the U.S. The effects are already visible, with an explosion in construction of new EV factories taking place across a stretch of America from a so-called “Battery Belt” in the South to the Great Lakes in the North.

That includes Michigan and, critically, the effects extend beyond the auto industry because building those plants requires so much labor. “It’s going to impact everyone up and down the supply chain,” Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber told me this week, “from auto workers to electricians, to construction workers, to truck drivers.”

For the strategy to work, somebody still needs to buy all these new EVs — a proposition that may seem shakier with manufacturers lowering projections for future sales and cutting back production. The Biden administration seems prepared to make things easier by (as reported in The New York Times last weekend) slowing the timeline for tighter emissions in ways that would allow for a more gradual transition.

But even the automakers who pressed for that timeline change don’t think anything can stop the transition to EVs. This kind of volatility is typical for new markets, and it’s not like EV demand has disappeared. It’s just that the rate of growth has slowed down, as auto beat reporter Phoebe Wall Howard of the Detroit Free Press noted in her fact-check of Trump’s speech.

Many analysts expect a rebound this year or next. Over the long run, they think, the real question is where the vehicles get built — here or abroad.

“There are two approaches,” Bieber said. “You can face it head on — invest in American-made products so we can compete on the global stage and bet on the American workers as Joe Biden proposes — or ignore it like Trump says, which is only going to set the American auto industry and hundreds of thousands of workers up to fail.”

The People Who Can Make Biden’s Case

Biden can cite all of that as validation for his efforts. He can also point out what he’s done to make sure the new EV jobs are actually good jobs.

That’s the other big concern of autoworkers, and it was at the heart of the autumn United Auto Workers strike against the Detroit Three (Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, which is the European conglomerate that owns Chrysler). At the time, UAW president Shawn Fain was angry that Biden hadn’t done more to ensure a “just transition” with guarantees that the new EV jobs would offer pay and benefits similar to the old combustion jobs.

Biden responded ― privately, by pushing the three companies for better terms on their contracts and, publicly, by marching with UAW workers on a picket line outside Detroit. It was believed to be the first time a president had ever joined striking workers and was part of a broader agenda, including the appointment of pro-union officials to the National Labor Relations Board, that now have labor officials and their supporters singing his praises.

Among them is Fain, the new UAW president. In January, he announced the UAW’s endorsement of Biden with a stirring speech that drew a contrast between Biden and Trump, whose record includes appointing officials hostile to organized labor and, during the recent strike, speaking at a nonunion firm.

“This November, we can stand up and elect someone who stands with us … or we can elect someone who will divide us and fight us every step of the way,” Fain said.

It’s difficult to know how much that kind of rhetoric, or the UAW’s endorsement, will ultimately matter in Michigan. Fain’s speech didn’t get that much attention, in part because the big news around Biden’s visit was the already growing tension over Gaza with the state’s Arab-American voters. And union members may not listen to their leaders, just as they might find Trump appealing for reasons that have nothing to do with jobs.

But the UAW’s organizing and get-out-the-vote operations are formidable. And one of Michigan’s most respected pollsters, Bernie Porn of Epic-MRA, told me that his polling before the Fain endorsement showed Trump leading slightly among unionized households. After the endorsement, Biden had pulled ahead.

The margin was small, Porn cautioned, and a plurality rather than a majority, which is why EVs remain an important issue and potential vulnerability for the president. “Biden needs to better explain how jobs for battery plants and increased production of EV’s in the future is intended to minimize any impact on jobs,” Porn said.

Support from the likes of Fain, Bieber and other trusted messengers can obviously help Biden to make that case. But ultimately Biden will have to make it himself.

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