The city of Washingto, D.C., does not usually play host to any major auto manufacturing or design facilities. However, in the last three years the nation's capital has turned out to be the nation's most influential car city. This growing power was recently on display during the annual Washington Auto Show held at the Walter Washington Convention Center, as automakers presented not only a growing roster of new models, contests and giveaways, but also a platform for companies to show off and explain their latest cutting-edge technologies under the watchful eyes of regulators and government officials.
President Barack Obama, lately the auto industry's booster-in-chief, made an unannounced stop at the show Tuesday, Jan. 31. He viewed more than a dozen new models from Ford, Dodge and General Motors, paid homage to Washington's recent efforts to rebuild the U.S. auto industry, and then promptly set to defend his administration's intervention in the auto industry.
"On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse," said Obama, recalling the spring of 2009 when GM and Chrysler teetered near bankruptcy. "Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen."
In late 2008, auto sales had plummeted and companies' access to loans had dried up. With capital markets frozen, GM and Chrysler could not fund their bankruptcies privately. Obama allocated close to $85 billion but forced concessions from industry stakeholders, enabling the companies to go through swift bankruptcies and begin rebuilding.
The move was strongly opposed by most congressional Republicans and some Democrats. In the two years since the administration's intervention, Chrysler, which was judged to have the slimmest chance of survival, has shot back to profitability.
GM is also raking in profits: It is projected to report an income of more than $8 billion later this month, and has added 13,000 jobs in the U.S. since bankruptcy. It has also overtaken Toyota and regained its decades-long position as the world's largest automaker. The year 2011 was also very profitable for the Ford Motor Company (which did not receive any federal funding). Its 2011 earnings increased to $20.2 billion, the second-highest total ever for the company.
Prominent visitors included Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), the outspoken former car dealer turned congressman, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
According to auto show chairman Robert Fogarty, the event assembles industry executives and federal leaders under one roof to foster discussion and understanding of the auto industry in a relaxed social setting.
"What is most encouraging is the enthusiasm and optimism evident among product specialists and show visitors alike for what's on display, which frankly hasn't been as evident in recent years as now," Fogarty added.
The Washington Auto Show traces its beginnings to 1921 when a group of 20 area car dealers and distributors planned an exhibit to sell the public on the virtue of the horseless carriage. Today the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association (WANADA), which represents more than 225 franchised new vehicle dealers in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, still sponsors the annual event.
"Three years ago going to an auto show was almost like going to a funeral, but look at it today," Ray LaHood, Obama's Secretary of Transportation, told a packed press conference. "It's like going to a wedding reception. Here at the Washington Auto Show you can still see what is possible in America," he continued. "This is the story of what America is all about-- picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off and getting on with the job at hand."