WASHINGTON — On the White House's message calendar, last week was Infrastructure Week, the kind of bipartisan agenda item that ought to have thrilled an industry that's always looking for better ways to move people, parts and pickups.
Instead, it was Comey Week, day after day of hype and buzz about the televised testimony of the former FBI director, part of a swirl of scandal that's tarring the president and bogging down Washington.
That pretty much sums up the start of the Trump era for the auto industry, five months in: so much potential, so much promise and so little progress.
Auto industry lobbyists here admit privately that they've tempered their expectations for quick legislative wins and are coming to terms with the fact that big, complex initiatives such as tax reform and infrastructure are bound to move more slowly than they hoped, especially with all the Sturm und Drang gripping Washington.
In November, Donald Trump's election was greeted in auto circles with a mix of surprise and heady anticipation. A businessman in the Oval Office backed by a Republican-controlled Congress would position the economy for a quick takeoff after seven years of tepid growth, went the thinking on Wall Street and in Detroit's C-suites.
The uninhibited tweets and divisive campaign rhetoric about immigration and tariffs would fade, they figured, and a president free of campaign pressures and ideological strictures could go forth with a pragmatic, pro-growth agenda.
And with effective one-party rule for the first time in a decade, prospects brightened for unleashing the free market's animal spirits, cutting taxes and rolling back the power of regulatory agencies such as the EPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Ford's then-CEO Mark Fields and Fiat Chrysler's Sergio Marchionne were out front cheerleading for Trump's economic ideas, while Fields and General Motors' Mary Barra were picked to participate on a White House manufacturing council. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers was talking about a "new paradigm for vehicle regulation," and betting it could now come true.
As long as there was hope for solutions to some of their pet issues, executives overlooked the signs that an inexperienced president and a fractured Congress would be ill-prepared to govern.
Now those signs are impossible to ignore. There is chaos in the White House, and deep division even among Republican lawmakers on major issues. Democrats are in no mood to cooperate.
That means infrastructure, and most other legislation of interest to the auto industry, won't move anytime soon.
That's a setback for automakers and suppliers, whose CEOs have pleaded for more than a decade for a significant federal infrastructure investment initiative. Trump had appealed to their hearts by floating a $1 trillion plan — heavy on tax credits, but light on details — that he said would attract private businesses to fix highways, bridges and the electric grid. Such a plan could help lay the foundation for autonomous vehicles, improve the efficiency of supply chains and help sell a ton of pickups to people in the construction trades.
Another setback is the slow track of tax reform. Auto executives hoped a quick and comprehensive package — cutting corporate rates in half, moving to a territorial system for taxing earnings of American companies with overseas operations, allowing for an immediate write-off of capital expenditures — would create a favorable investment climate to spur domestic manufacturing and job creation.
But the administration's one-page outline of a tax proposal in April was pilloried for its scant attention to deficits and fantastical growth projections. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin plans to deliver a comprehensive tax proposal around Labor Day, but crafting a legislative package that can gain the necessary votes will take months, if not years.
The House last week advanced legislation that would hobble the CFPB, but it's expected to die in the Senate.
On trade, the industry continues to play defense. The president's trade agenda could upset a beneficial ecosystem for automakers in North America and other markets, especially if it focuses on reducing trade deficits and restricting imports, rather than, say, currency manipulation and other nontariff barriers, the Detroit automakers' bugaboos. Another question mark is whether the Trump administration will impose import tariffs after its review of global overcapacity in steel and aluminum, which could raise prices for cars and trucks.
The larger risk is that President Trump has lost political capital with his clumsy handling of the health care overhaul, the Russia investigation and relationships with allies. At this point, the White House has no clear legislative strategy and very little bargaining power.
For the auto industry, all that means the window of opportunity that opened suddenly in November 2016 is sliding shut.
Democrats are mounting an aggressive push to retake control of the House in 2018 and derail the Trump agenda altogether. Even if they fall short, the president can't well afford to lose many more GOP allies. With any more narrowing of his majority, wrote The New York Times' Glenn Thrush, "You can't pass a gallstone in the House."
Any near-term victories would likely come at the agency level, through rule-making, rather than through sweeping legislation. Already, the EPA has granted the industry's wish for a longer review of greenhouse-gas emissions rules for 2022-25, reopening a process that was locked down by the departing Obama administration.
The Transportation Department said it expects to update guidance for certification of automated vehicles this summer, and various regulatory streamlining efforts are underway, although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is operating without a politically appointed administrator or deputy.
That's sustaining some latent optimism among industry lobbyists that they can still notch some victories, even if they must wait for them.
"Washington never moves as fast as one would like," said Matt Blunt, president of the American Automotive Policy Council. "Every administration has unique challenges, and certainly this would be no exception."