In a way, though, the plant was inadvertently telling a more complicated story, about globalization and the changing nature of commerce. Saft America is a unit of Saft Groupe, a French company with holdings around the world. Sales of lithium-ion batteries have been considerably slower than anticipated, and the factory has yet to turn a profit. The French parent doesn’t expect profitability for another two or three years and has already written down part of its investment on the factory.
Here was a factory built, in part, with U.S. government dollars for the benefit of the local and national economy. Yet the factory, its technology and its patents are all owned by a foreign corporation. Its French chief executive is almost completely detached from the community here in Jacksonville; he did not even attend Obama’s speech. And the factory’s profits, to the extent they ever come, may very well be sent abroad instead of being reinvested here.
The factory visit might also tell a more complicated story about the presidency. It has always been the case that voters credit or, more often, blame the president for the nation’s economic performance. But it is also the case that the president generally has considerably less sway to move the economy than even he might like to acknowledge. And as the economy continues to disperse, that sway may be diminishing further. A president has less power than ever, in either a hard- power (legal/regulatory) or soft-power (cultural) sense, over American chief executives, let alone over the chief executives of multinationals based in France or China or other places where many U.S. employers make their headquarters.