Elon Musk: The man Joe Biden loves to hate and hates to need

From electric vehicles to space exploration, Musk is a necessary ally of the White House — even if the president detests him.
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Elon Musk
Tesla CEO Elon Musk in Grünheide near Berlin, Germany, Aug. 13, 2021
Patrick Pleul - Pool / Getty Images

The recent spat between Joe Biden and Elon Musk marked the latest chapter in a familiar story: the president and the world's richest man sparring publicly over a range of political issues, from unions to the economy.

However, while Biden by all appearances doesn't like Musk, the president finds himself in the position of needing the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX in order to pursue key policy goals of his administration regarding electric vehicle (EV) production and space exploration.

Since his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden has made the increased production of EVs a central pillar of his agenda to promote green energy, become less reliant on fossil fuels, and combat climate change.

Indeed, the Biden administration's stated goal is for half of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be electric by 2030. To reach that goal, current EV manufacturing will have to grow by 15 times, according to a Defense Department presentation obtained by Bloomberg.

Biden has also issued guidelines that by 2035 all new cars and trucks purchased by the federal government are to be zero-emission.

For Biden, therefore, U.S.-based Tesla is necessarily an indispensable partner as the world's biggest EV maker.

Tesla sells by far the top three EVs in the U.S. and crushes the competition in terms of overall EV sales and production, seeing record surges over the past two years as other major carmakers such as General Motors saw big declines.

Perhaps more importantly, Tesla, a much smaller company than major automakers, can easily expand, according to industry experts.

"At the rate it's growing now, it will be bigger than GM in five years," said John Casesa, a former Ford executive and current senior managing director at Guggenheim Securities, at a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago forum in January.

Beyond EVs, Biden has also made space a priority — another area in which the president can't ignore Musk even if he wanted to.

In December, the White House released its "Space Priorities Framework," which outlined some of the administration's general priorities in space and declared an overall objective of maintaining U.S. leadership in space.

"The United States will remain a global leader in science and engineering by pioneering space research and technology that propels exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond," the document stated. "Additionally, the United States will continue to leverage civil space activities to foster new commercial space services such as human space transportation and space stations in low Earth orbit."

The framework described U.S. advances in space as matters of national, economic, and environmental security.

SpaceX, a private company under Musk's direction, has played an integral role in recent space developments. It is currently the only company sending astronauts to space for NASA, operating the only American system carrying NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Last week, NASA said it plans to buy five more SpaceX-crewed flights to the International Space Station, adding on to a $3.5 billion contract awarded to SpaceX in February for three additional astronaut missions.

Through various technological innovations, SpaceX is also regularly launching and landing rockets carrying payloads — at a comparatively lower price than others — for a range of customers beyond NASA, such as private companies and the U.S. Space Force.

Musk has said his goal is to reach Mars so humanity is not a "single-planet species."

Despite this apparent overlap in interests, however, Musk and Biden haven't exactly seen eye to eye.

The latest back-and-forth between the two men began on Thursday, when Musk said he had a "super bad feeling" about the economy in an email to Tesla employees first reported by Reuters. Musk added he would need to cut about 10% of salaried staff at the electric carmaker and "pause all hiring worldwide" as a result. (Musk later clarified and somewhat walked back what he said in the email.)

Musk's email echoed comments last week from JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who warned a "hurricane is right out there down the road coming our way."

Other business leaders have expressed similar sentiments, warning of the risk of recession as the Federal Reserve attempts to tighten monetary policy to combat the devastating economic effects of historically high inflation.

When asked about Musk and Dimon's views about the economy at a press conference on Friday, Biden focused on Musk, seemingly taking a shot at Tesla by touting the work of rival automakers.

"While Elon Musk is talking about that, Ford is increasing their investment overwhelmingly," said Biden, referring to Ford's recent announcement that it plans to add 6,200 factory jobs in Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio.

Biden also touted new manufacturing investments from Chrysler parent Stellantis and computer chipmaker Intel before taking a dismissive jab at Musk.

"Lots of luck on his trip to the moon," Biden said in a sarcastic tone. "I mean, I don't know."

Musk responded to Biden's taunt on Twitter, writing, "Thanks Mr President!" and linking to a 2021 NASA press release about the federal space agency selecting SpaceX for a major $2.89 billion contract to send the next American astronauts to the moon in preparation for an eventual trip to Mars.

This is hardly the first time that Musk and Biden have clashed. Their public feud started more than a year ago, seemingly triggered by the president backing auto unions and touting the progress of rival EV makers without ever mentioning nonunionized Tesla.

Most notably, Biden and Democrats in Congress pushed legislation that would provide bonus tax credits for EVs built by union labor — and thereby make EVs built by Tesla and other nonunion companies thousands of dollars more costly for consumers.

Biden's signature legislation as president, the Build Back Better Act, which ultimately failed to pass in Congress, included tax credits of up to $12,500 for vehicles made in the U.S. by union workers.

Specifically, the bill would've granted up to $7,500 in tax credits for buyers of plug-in EVs made anywhere and an extra $500 if the vehicle's battery is made in the U.S. The controversial part was an additional $4,500 tax credit if the vehicle was built domestically with union labor.

Musk called Biden a "puppet" of the United Auto Workers, which collaborated with the Democrats who wrote the tax credit.

Beyond the tax credit, Biden has repeatedly snubbed Musk and Tesla when discussing EVs, despite Tesla's position as the world's biggest EV maker.

In January, for example, Tesla was omitted — not for the first time — from a summit meeting with top business leaders, including the CEOs of General Motors and Ford, to promote Build Back Better, which prioritized investments in EVs to boost production as a way to combat climate change.

At the summit, Biden declared that "companies like GM and Ford are building more electric vehicles here at home than ever before" without mentioning Tesla.

In response, Musk ripped Biden on Twitter, saying the president was "treating the American public like fools" and calling him a "damp [sock] puppet in human form."

The following month, Musk told CNBC that Biden "has pointedly ignored Tesla at every turn and falsely stated to the public that GM leads the electric car industry." The Tesla CEO noted his company announced in January it had produced and delivered over 300,000 vehicles globally in the fourth quarter while GM reported U.S. sales of 26 EVs in the same period.

Days later, Biden omitted any mention of Tesla from the portion of his annual State of the Union address dedicated to EV investments.

Biden said Ford was investing $11 billion to build EVs creating 11,000 jobs across the country and GM was investing $7 billion to build EVs creating 4,000 jobs in Michigan — to which Musk responded on Twitter, "Tesla has created over 50,000 US jobs building electric vehicles & is investing more than double GM + Ford combined."

Last month, Musk said the Biden administration has "done everything it can to sideline and ignore Tesla, even though we have made twice as many EVs as the rest of the U.S. industry combined." He also claimed the Democratic Party is "overly controlled by the unions and by the trial lawyers, particularly the class action lawyers."

Given their recent history, it seems unlikely the two men will make up anytime soon — even if Biden needs Musk to push his EV and space agendas.