Why GM can't rid itself of 'Government Motors'

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DETROIT -- Ever since the Bush and Obama administrations bailed out General Motors in 2008 and 2009, the automaker has tried to shed the insidious moniker "Government Motors."

It hasn't been easy. Take the timing of a press release such as the one GM put out Thursday. It's natural grist for the conspiracy mill.

GM informed 4,500 employees at its assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, that the automaker was investing $200 million in tooling with an eye toward the next-gen Chevy Cruze, which comes out in 2014. Now, there really wasn't much suspense over where the next-gen Cruze would be made -- Lordstown has been cranking out Chevy compacts since the '70s.

So what gives?

It's an election year, of course!

Ohio is almost always a key swing state in presidential elections; this year more than ever, if you believe The New York Times. State polling shows the race is tight, too.

President Obama is up 3 to 6 percentage points over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the two most recent polls, according to Ohio media reports.

Ohio has emerged as a focal point in the debate over the success of the U.S. auto industry bailout -- a bailout that started under a Republican administration, but usually is credited to or blamed on Obama.

Now, it's important to note that there is zero evidence that anyone from the U.S. government, which controls about one-third of GM common stock, tells CEO Dan Akerson how to run the automaker.

And GM has denied that there was any political influence over the timing of the announcement.

"Absolutely not. It was a business decision by GM. We run our own business," a spokesman said Thursday. "We're staying out of the politics. The Obama administration doesn't run our company. At the end of the day, we sell cars to Republicans, Democrats and everybody in between."

Still, if you're a Republican conspiracy theorist, this one smells a little fishy.

And it certainly doesn't help the automaker shake the notion that it's carrying water for its largest shareholder. Somebody should have put the brakes on this announcement until Nov. 7.

You can reach Philip Nussel at pnussel@crain.com.

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