The Obama administration may be the most challenging the tire industry has faced in decades, said Charles A. Cannon, president and CEO of the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
But the challenges of a Democratic administration and Congress also can mean new opportunities, Cannon stressed during his address at the 25th annual Clemson University Tire Industry Conference, held April 1-3 in Hilton Head.
“We need to be careful not to be an industry of 'No,' but offer constructive compromises to a public buffeted by the economic downturn,” Cannon said.
“This is a time to build strategic alliances that include the environmental community and the safety community as allies rather than opponents,” he said.
The 2008 elections gave the Democratic Party a virtual lock on the legislative agenda, Cannon said.
While both Barack Obama and John McCain ran as agents of change, it was President Obama's campaign that proved successful, leaving the tire industry with the quandary of trying to understand what his election means for it politically.
“The president tapped into an idealistic strain in America, and his appeal cut across political divisions,” Cannon said. The most recent ABC polls measure President Obama's appeal, he said: 66 percent of those polled approve of the job President Obama is doing; 52 percent approve of his handling of defense; and 42 percent believe the country is going in the right direction, up from 15 percent at the end of 2008.
But those same polls show that President Obama's bipartisan appeal is just a myth, Cannon said. When asked if they expected the Democrats to do a better job with the economy than the Republicans, 94 percent of self-identified Democrats said yes, but only 18 percent of Republicans did.
In any case, President Obama is taking the most active presidential role in industry since President Truman ordered an end to the steel strike during the Korean War, Cannon said.
The Obama administration's stimulus package has created some strange bedfellows—uniting the Democratic Party with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, for example—but no one is really certain what the package will do, according to Cannon.
He quoted the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith: “Economic forecasting was invented to make astrologers look good.”
Meanwhile, major legislative challenges loom for the tire industry, particularly the climate change bill, the draft of which would mandate a 20-percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 and a 50-percent reduction by 2050, Cannon said.
But even here is an opportunity for the tire industry to be part of the solution, through an intensive consumer education program on tire care as a way to save fuel and reduce tailpipe emissions, he said.
“This is an opportunity to look for new allies and partners, being careful not to alienate those who have different approaches but share the same larger objective,” he said.
The tire industry has a real opportunity in this administration to get its message across to Congress and the public, but it needs to be united and take a reasonable tone, Cannon said.