Why GM CEO Mary Barra is Obama’s perfect State of the Union guest

January 28, 2014
January 28, 2014

Tonight US president Barack Obama delivers his annual address on the state of the country and his agenda for the year ahead. As the interminable speech unspools, Obama will name assorted dignitaries seated in the audience—but one will really capture the story of his economic policies, and that’s General Motors’ new CEO, Mary Barra.

You can guess when she’ll be mentioned: Obama will take a victory lap about the successful rescue of GM during the financial crisis. In December, the US Treasury sold off the last of the GM stock it had acquired by financing the company through bankruptcy. GM just announced its first dividend since returning to public markets, has seen fairly healthy sales growth, and appointed Barra—who has spent her entire career at GM—CEO in December. Barra’s father worked on the GM assembly line, and she herself started off as a plant engineer before earning an MBA on the company’s dime and working its way up the ranks.

So Obama will congratulate himself on a bailout that cost taxpayers $10.5 billion but averted a far heavier price. But look at GM’s home city, Detroit, and its messy bankruptcy, for something of a reality check.

For all the good the Obama administration and Congress did in shoring up the financial system and American business, the question animating the many Americans who aren’t happy with the performance of the economy (beyond the still-high unemployment rate) is whether someone growing up today stands a good chance of replicating Barra’s path to the top. In particular, the chance Barra had—to join a company that paid to train its workforce from unskilled laborer to engineer to management—is lacking in today’s US. While economic mobility, according to the latest study, remains the same as it was since Barra’s youth, the sinking median income and the increasing share of US income growth captured by the wealthiest has many Americans worried.

So when Obama rolls out the latest update on his agenda, including ideas to fight inequality by broadening educational opportunities and raising the minimum wage, he’ll be using Barra’s present circumstances to bolster his case. But Americans will want to know whether a new generation will have the same chances.

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