Campaigning on the Auto Bailout: Is It a Good Idea?

Should Democrats also tout the bank bailout, and how might Republicans respond?

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Who could have imagined two years ago that the bailouts would have gone so well that they would be used as a campaign talking point in 2012? Some Democrats are using the auto industry bailout, in particular, as proof that they were successful in taking action to prevent a more catastrophic recession. The strategy is a little bit risky, of course, as many Americans detest the very idea of bailouts, no matter the consequences. Is this a smart tactic for Democrats?

The Wrong Bailout?

First, it's kind of puzzling that Democrats are campaigning on the success of the auto bailout -- and not the bank bailout. In fact, taxpayers fared far better through their "investment" in the banking industry than they did in the auto industry. As of the Treasury's March bailout program update (.pdf), the auto bailout is expected to cost taxpayers $15 billion. Meanwhile, the non-housing-related financial industry bailout is expected to provide the government with a net gain of $157 billion. Obviously, the taxpayers were far better off rescuing the banks than they were rescuing out the auto companies.

But what about the jobs saved? Unfortunately, these numbers are impossible to tabulate accurately. Although the Obama administration claims that the bailout of GM and Chrysler saved a million jobs, a similar estimate for the bank bailout is difficult to make. Looking at the size of the respective industries, however, could provide some idea of what might have been lost. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the auto industry had 780,000 employees when it was bailed out in December 2008. The banking and insurance industries (excluding real estate), however, had 5.92 million workers at that time. Even by this measure, it seems that saving the financial sector was more worthwhile.

From a profits standpoint, the financial industry has also performed much better since its bailout than the rescued auto companies. Let's look at the net income for 2010 through the first quarter of this year. Chrysler and GM combined for $7.3 billion in profit. Two most troubled big banks, Citi and Bank of America together made $13.4 billion. Of course, this doesn't include the many billions of dollars in profit made at rescued banks like JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and many, many others.

Presumably, Democrats see a stronger populist narrative for the auto bailout. Visions of Uncle Sam holding on his shoulders an assembly line made up of blue collar workers might please most Americans more than him propping up the mahogany desks where bankers sit in their Brooks Brothers' suits. But if so, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the bank bailout. If the U.S. suffered the collapse of its financial infrastructure, the economic damage would have been far more catastrophic than if a few large auto manufacturing firms had failed. Moreover, it wasn't just the Wall Street high rollers who were rescued: hundreds of thousands of employees working at small banks and at big bank regional branches across Main Street America were spared.

If Democrats want to campaign on bailouts, then they might as well brag about the bank bailout as well. After all, it was far more successful by pretty much every measure.

Presented by

Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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