A few hours before Tesla reported record profit and sales for 2021, President Joe Biden met with the company’s biggest competitors at the White House to applaud their efforts–with Tesla CEO Elon Musk notably absent.
CEOs of General Motors, Ford and engine-maker Cummins basked in the glow of the president’s praise for their efforts to curb carbon pollution, boost U.S. manufacturing and support Biden’s stalled Build Back Better legislation. Not long after, Musk, the CEO of the world’s biggest electric vehicle maker and the richest man on the planet, was on a conference call, touting the financial gains of his company and answering questions from analysts, none of whom asked about the White House snub.
In fact, Musk didn’t say anything about the White House forum during the earnings call, and Biden didn’t mention Musk at his reception. (The billionaire’s exclusion from an August 2021 White House meeting on electric vehicles featuring GM, Ford and Stellantis prompted Musk to tweet “seems odd Tesla wasn’t invited.”) To say there’s a frosty relationship between the two may be an understatement, and Wednesday’s eclipsing events did nothing to suggest a thaw.
Tesla set a record in 2021 by producing nearly 1 million electric cars and crossovers at plants in California and China. The company is also about to begin production at a massive new EV plant in Austin, Texas, in the weeks ahead. Even so, Biden has yet to visit any of Tesla’s U.S. facilities or meet publicly with Musk.
That’s likely the result not simply of Musk’s criticism of Build Back Better–saying at a conference in December that Congress shouldn’t pass it and tweeting that there was “a lot of accounting trickery” in the bill. The tech billionaire is also fighting efforts by the United Autoworkers to organize Tesla’s Fremont, California, plant, a problematic stance for the pro-labor Biden administration. Tesla has drawn criticism from human rights groups and some members of Congress for its recent opening of a store to sell vehicles in China’s Xinjiang Province, where the Chinese have been accused by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken of “genocide and crimes against humanity” involving the Uighur ethnic and religious minority.
The apparent mutual disdain between Musk and Biden is a curious development considering that support from the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, was instrumental in Tesla’s early success. The $465 million low-interest loan Tesla got from Obama’s Energy Department under a program aimed at aiding green-energy-oriented companies helped Musk refurbish the decades-old Fremont plant it acquired from Toyota in 2010. Absent those funds, and federal tax incentives for customers who bought Teslas, it’s possible the company might not have survived its rocky early years.
On Wednesday, Tesla reported earning net income in 2021’s fourth quarter of $2.32 billion, an eightfold increase from a year earlier, and revenue of $17.7 billion. Both the company’s full-year net income of $5.5 billion and revenue of $53.8 billion were records. “2021 was a breakthrough year for Tesla and for electric vehicles in general,” Musk said on the results call. “While we battled, and everyone did, with supply-chain challenges through the year, we managed to grow our volumes by nearly 90%.”
While Musk was touting Tesla’s successes, Biden was extolling the virtues of Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, Ford CEO Jim Farley and CEO Tim Linebarger of Cummins.
“The industrial Midwest, believe it or not, is coming back,” Biden said. “It’s coming back and doing some of the most sophisticated manufacturing in the world.” He praised the companies for employing union workers. Tesla, meanwhile, is expanding efforts to use robots.
The president went on to applaud GM’s plans to invest an additional $7 billion to bolster its EV production in Michigan, announced on Jan. 25, and Ford’s $11 billion commitment last year to produce its F-150 Lightning electric pickup and other models. He also heaped love on the companies for the thousands of jobs that will be created.
GM’s Barra gave a full-throated endorsement for customer incentives on Wednesday. “It does stimulate the market,” she said.
After building Tesla with the help of such incentives, Musk now opposes them.
Tesla can afford to play antagonist to Biden, at least for now. Just look at the quarterly results. But when regulatory issues, such as the Transportation Department’s scrutiny of the company’s Autopilot driver-assist feature, become more serious liabilities, Musk may want an invitation to the White House party.