Biden acknowledges Tesla’s EV leadership despite Musk’s criticisms

President Joe Biden publicly acknowledged Tesla for the first time in his presidency on Tuesday, noting the company’s status as the nation’s largest producer of electric vehicles.

Biden’s mention of Tesla came during a speech to promote American companies expanding the nation’s EV infrastructure. It was sandwiched between shoutouts to legacy automakers General Motors and Ford Motor, as well as smaller EV companies Rivian Automotive and Proterra.

Biden had avoided mentioning the company so far as president, a decision White House aides say is driven by his perception that Tesla is anti-union.

The mention also comes after Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has spent months heavily criticizing, even trolling, the president and other elected officials in the Democratic Party on Twitter and during press interviews.

Tesla vehicles at charging stations at a dealership in Rocklin, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Musk has taken umbrage with Biden’s pro-union and infrastructure spending plans, as well as his apparent indifference to Musk, his companies, and Tesla’s leadership in electric vehicle manufacturing and charging infrastructure.

The CEO’s comments have ranged from calling Biden a “damp sock puppet in human form,” to accusing the president of being “controlled by unions.”

That swipe came after the Biden administration proposed an EV incentive package that allocated additional money for consumers who purchased electric vehicles, but only if the vehicles were built by unionized workers.

Musk has also voiced displeasure about Tesla not being invited to the White House to discuss electric vehicles alongside others such as GM and Ford.

Tesla’s supporters even launched a social media and outdoor advertising campaign to pressure the president to give a nod to Tesla or Musk.

Alongside Tesla and others, Biden on Tuesday also praised fast charging equipment manufacturer Tritium for establishing a new manufacturing facility in Tennessee. And he praised Intel for its plans to build a major semiconductor chip factory in Ohio.

“Those semiconductors, microchips power virtually everything in our everyday lives. Cellphones, automobiles, refrigerators, the internet, the electric grid. Without semiconductors those things cannot fully function,” he noted.

Increased domestic production of chips in the U.S., Biden said, would enable more manufacturing here and help ease inflation.

Read more about electric vehicles from CNBC Pro

“One of the reasons automobiles cost so much is — they’re responsible for one-fifth of the recent inflation — is because they lack semiconductors,” said Biden. “They’re not able to build them quick enough, so the price goes up higher because there’s fewer to sell.”

Then Biden named Tesla as an example of a company that has invested in American manufacturing.

“Since 2021, companies have announced investments totaling more than $200 billion in domestic manufacturing here in America. From iconic companies like GM and Ford building out new electric vehicle production to Tesla, our nation’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, to innovative younger companies like Rivian building electric trucks or Proterra, building electric buses,” the president said.

Biden uncharacteristically did not discuss unions much during the Tuesday event. While GM, Ford and Proterra have unionized workers, Tesla’s workforce in the U.S. isn’t unionized. Workforces for Rivian, and other EV start-ups also aren’t organized today.

Biden did say: “Other countries recognize what’s happening here. They want to buy American as well. They’re ready to bet on America and American workers, workers who built the middle class earning good pay and benefits and the right to organize.”

Musk has vociferously opposed unions throughout his career as the CEO of Tesla.

In 2021, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board found that Tesla had violated the National Labor Relations Act after the company prohibited employees from speaking with the press without authorization, and after Musk said in a post on Twitter that unionizing would cause employees to lose stock options.

On Tuesday, following the president’s speech, Musk appeared peevish and unimpressed. He posted a link to a story on a Tesla fan site to the president’s attention on the social media platform to emphasize that the company was the best-selling battery electric vehicle maker worldwide in 2021.

CNBC’s Christina Wilkie contributed to this story.

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