NAM’s love/hate relationship with President Obama reflects industry in transition

By Bart Taylor | Feb 16, 2015

It seems Jay Timmons was born to lead NAM, the National Association of Manufacturers. He's from America's rust belt, Chillicothe, Ohio, with generations of manufacturing in his blood and a determined, buttoned down all-American comportment that feels a natural fit atop NAM's 14,000-strong membership. Conjure an image for a spokesperson for U.S. industry, for its proud manufacturing base. You'll get Jay Timmons.

What you also get today from Timmons' is a manufacturing policy message in transition, that like industry, is taking stock of recent success but searching, at times awkwardly, for footing in a new and complex manufacturing economy. For Timmons and NAM, this translates into a modern love/hate relationship with President Obama and his administration's policies.

Timmons was in Colorado last week on a 12-city national State of Manufacturing tour, speaking at Ball Corporation's Broomfield facility. CACI, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, a manufacturing advocate and state affiliate for NAM, organized the gathering.

What's changing about his message is the support NAM summons for policies that strike a somewhat unprecedented ideological balance for this venerable organization. It made for an entertaining presentation that swung from open hostility to begrudging support for the president, even as its historic and resolute opposition to the traditionally Democratic staples of more regulation and higher taxes remains the foundation of its pro-business rubric.

For Timmons, "manufacturing faces a disproportionate share of the burden of government regulation," and he was openly contemptuous of the EPA and administration's support of more stringent air quality standards.

"The administration's regulatory agenda and regulation of greenhouses gasses would limit fuel choices, increase energy prices and make power less reliable," he argued. "The development of next-generation power-plant technologies is a prime example. Today coal generates about 40 percent of the nation's electricity and we have decades worth of coal reserves. The rules would eliminate this abundant resource from our energy mix."

But in the next breath, Timmons' confirmed that "America has an unprecedented and incredible global advantage in reliable and affordable energy -- who would ever thought this ten years ago? -- and that's what's driving manufacturing's resurgence." Further, he acknowledged that "manufacturing's carbon emissions are down 13 percent percent since 2005, while manufacturer's value-add to the economy has grown 19 percent over that same time period, because we're building more efficient power plants," adding that the "U.S. has made significant progress we need in an 'all of the above' energy strategy."

On tax strategy, he decried America's "highest corporate tax rate in the world -- a problem we need to fix," advocating, of course, tax reform. With no movement from Congress yet on this issue or legislation reaching the President's desk, Timmons held his fire. Not so on immigration reform, where he offered a full-throated defense of Obama's push for comprehensive immigration reform and clear path to citizenship for immigrants working here illegally.

On net neutrality, Timmons was equally unequivocal. "The Internet of Things has the potential to reshape our industry or nation and our world, all of the is progress begs the question: Why should we be turning back the clock back 80 years? That's exactly what President Obama wants to do by regulating the internet with a 80-year old law that was enacted during the era of rotary telephones. It will curtail investment in our broadband infrasture, hinder the creation of game changing technologies on our shop floors and yield little benefit for consumers."

The statement is as uncertain as it is bold, though, and his embrace for the administration's cybersecurity initiative softened the blow. "I have to say the president is taking the right steps in calling for more real time cyber-threat information sharing in the private and public sector and targeting liability protection. This is a promising start for sure."

Timmons also voiced his support for Obama on free trade. "We need to be where overseas consumers are buying: International trade supports more than 700,000 jobs in Colorado; its companies trade with customer in over 200 countries. A smart trade policy is the difference between growing business and shutting their doors. Free and fair trade including trade promotion for the President of the United States will give us greater access to the foreign markets we need." It's not a unanimous sentiment in the manufacturing community.

Taken as a whole, this well-intentioned if somewhat confusing policy evolution reflects an industry in transition. Manufacturing is changing. It's tech-driven - digital; it's agile, small business; it's young and lifestyle-driven to suit trends and changing consumer preferences; it's beer and organic food at the same time it's steel and paper, fabricating and welding.

It's changing and NAM and Timmons are trying hard to adapt -- however confusing and disruptive the journey may be.