Travis Kalanick’s decision to quit Donald Trump’s economic advisory council on the eve of its first meeting was hardly a good look for the president, though it appears unlikely that any of the other 18 members will follow the Uber CEO’s lead—at least not in the near future.
Kalanick’s withdrawal, announced to staff in an email late yesterday, shows just how much pressure CEOs are under to balance acknowledging the grievances of some customers with a desire to keep communication channels open with Washington.
Few companies have suffered more public criticism since Trump’s election than Uber. During the president’s confirmation, activists chained themselves to the ride-sharing app’s headquarters to protest Kalanick’s involvement with the council. Then, when Trump’s immigration ban was announced, Uber was slammed for dropping ride prices while cab drivers went on strike to protest the ban.
The turbulence has seemingly fallen into the hands of rival Lyft, whose leaders haven’t had much to do with Trump since he was elected, other than to criticize him.
To be sure, other companies have suffered criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for either appearing to agree with Trump, disagree with Trump, or not agree or disagree with Trump enough. So what else is special about Uber?
Kalanick and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk were both late additions to Trump’s advisory council, which, before they joined, was very light on representation from the tech sector. Silicon Valley has given the frostiest reception to Trump’s election and subsequent policy moves, so if anyone was to quit the council, it’s not entirely surprising it’s a tech CEO.
Uber also may have more at stake if it appears to be sidling up to Trump. Ride-sharing, like most new technology, is more popular with younger people, who were far more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton during the election or support Bernie Sanders during the primaries.
According to a study released last May by Pew Research, 15% of Americans had used a ride-sharing app, while a third had never heard of the service. More than a quarter (29%) of 18-to-29-year-olds and a fifth of 30-to-49-year-olds had used ride-hailing, but just 4% of Americans aged 65 and older had done so.
So Kalanick risks angering a very large chunk of his current customer base, who have an established competitor at hand to flee to.
“Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda, but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” Kalanick said in the staff email. He said he mentioned the immigration ban to Trump while telling him he would no longer sit on the council. Many of Uber’s drivers come from outside the U.S.
Musk and IBM’s Ginni Rometty will now be left to carry the torch for the tech sector at today’s meeting. Musk in particular has indicated he isn’t afraid to criticize Trump over the ban, but, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, he’s said it’s important to continue engaging with the president. “Personally, I’ve never found being on the sideline a successful place to be,” Cook, who isn’t on the economic advisory council, told Apple staff in December.