As part of his on-going effort to reduce carbon emissions – or perhaps in an effort to charm a conservative-leaning audience that’s skeptical of his health care plans – President Obama, Wednesday, honored Jimmie Johnson, the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion, and extolled the virtues of this “uniquely American sport.” It’s not a sport he appears to have much liking for: his jokes were labored and he butchered the name of one of the honorees.
Presidents have to do a lot of this sort of thing, of course, and it is hard to blame the President for so evidently finding the job a chore. But he didn’t have to take the next step. During an accompanying interview with ESPN, he proffered the belief that Ford, GM, and Chrysler should stay associated with NASCAR:
It’s about as good advertising as you can get . . . . If somebody’s excited about NASCAR, that means their excited about cars. We want to make sure people know what great American cars are. . . . Over the long term if you look 5, 10 years out I think they’re going to come back stronger than ever and I think their association with NASCAR makes a great difference.
Now, frankly, how can he know that? He might be right. But he has no background in advertising, or NASCAR, or the car industry, and no idea how much being involved with NASCAR costs each of the formerly Big Three. After all, running a car in a sport like NASCAR is not just an easy way to get free advertising – otherwise, everyone would do it.
What the President has actually done is, in this off the cuff way, to tell the managers of GM – a company in which the US government is the majority shareowner – that he expects them to stick with NASCAR, whether or not it’s actually a commercially sensible thing to do. Ford and Chrysler, too, can be expected to pay attention.
As we pointed out months ago, the government will use the power that its ownership of GM confers. Worse, the ways in which the government will use this power – perhaps without even intending to do so – are endless. Once politicians start owning businesses, their words stop carrying merely moral weight and become a factor in the decisions that managers have to make. Obama’s beliefs about NASCAR’s value should be entirely irrelevant to their assessment. Right now, they are not.