Apple Represents U.S. Manufacturing in Presidential Debates

Apple entered U.S. presidential politics on Tuesday when the company was used as a stand-in for American manufacturing during the debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. The incident took place when the debate's moderator, Candy Crowler, asked the two candidates how Apple, "a great American company," could be convinced to bring its manufacturing back to the U.S.

Apple in Politics

The question came towards the end of the debate (see transript), when Ms. Crowley asked, "Mr. President, we have a really short time for a quick discussion here. iPad, the Macs, the iPhones, they are all manufactured in China, and one of the major reasons is labor is so much cheaper [in China]. How do you convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?"

We should note that the question was for both candidates. President Obama was named in the question because it was his turn to take the first response.

What we find interesting about this is less about the politics of the answers, but for the sake of completeness, we'll include them:

Governor Romney talked about making the U.S. more friendly to corporations by lowering corporate. He also talked about China as a currency manipulator, suggesting that ending this practice would level the playing field. Thirdly, he argued that China steals U.S. intellectual property, and that this, too, keeps the playing field uneven.

To that end, he mentioned that there's a counterfeit Apple Store selling counterfeit goods. That's a subject that tech news sites and blogs have covered extensively—there were some 22 fake Apple Stores and unauthorized resellers found in one city, Kunming, back in 2011—but it's not the kind of thing we're used to seeing talked about in presidential politics.

President Obama's answer started with the statement that there are some jobs that simply aren't going to come back to the U.S. because they are low wage, low skill jobs. He argued that his priority is to focus on high wage jobs and advanced manufacturing. He also made the case for investing in science and research, and training engineers, "that will create the next Apple."

Again, for the purposes of this article, we're less interested in the politics of those answers than we are in the fact that Apple, Macs, iPhones, and iPads were used in the debates to symbolically represent...everything.

It wasn't that long ago when it might have been Dell, a company that has also moved manufacturing from the U.S. to China. A generation ago, it would have been a textile firm, or perhaps steel mills, that would have symbolized American manufacturing.

Today, though, Apple is the world's most valuable corporation, and the company has clearly transitioned from being a kooky PC company that clearly doesn't get it to, "a great American company."

We should, note, too, that neither candidate nor the moderator was invoking Apple in an effort to glom onto the company's popularity and success, nor to take potshots at Apple's outsourcing for cheap political gains.

Perhaps it was how matter-of-fact Apple was treated that made the brief discussion seem so remarkable to this veteran Apple-centric journalist. Times have changed, and Apple's billions clearly matter in politics today.

From the billions in profits made overseas that are being held offshore, to the billions in taxes Apple pays, to the hundreds of billions in the company's market cap, to the reality that Apple's iPhone upgrade cycle can have a perceivable effect on U.S. GDP, Apple is a big deal to not only its customers and fans, but in politics, as well.

AllthingsD's Arik Hasseldahl had an interesting take on how he would have liked to see Ms. Crowley's question answered.

Image made with help from Shutterstock.