DETROIT — In an effort to highlight the success of the auto industry bailout and its subsequent recovery, President Barack Obama visited the North American Auto Show in Detroit and spoke at the United Auto Workers and General Motors Center on Wednesday.
In 2008, the auto industry was nearing collapse as two of the three major auto producers — General Motors and Chrysler — faced bankruptcy. Both companies are headquartered in Detroit with many manufacturing plants in and around the city, providing many jobs and supporting additional industries involved in auto manufacturing and supply.
At the time of the bailout, unemployment in Detroit had peaked at more than 25 percent, and a projected 1 million additional jobs would have been lost had the auto industry been allowed to collapse.
In response to the crisis, Obama spearheaded a package that provided $85 billion in loans to the corporations to prevent them from failing. The deal was widely unpopular at the time, with a March 2009 poll indicating 60 percent of Americans were opposed to the government bailout.
On Wednesday, Obama acknowledged this lack of support, saying Obama he pushed the bailout through regardless because he believed it was the best decision.
“It wasn’t popular,” Obama said. “It wasn’t even popular in Detroit. But I said at the time I’m not president to be popular. I’m president to do what needs to be done.”
Since the bailout, the auto industry has paid back almost the entirety of the loans and auto sales have reached an all-time high at 17.4 million units in 2015, Obama said.
The spirit of liveliness that once existed in Detroit is slowly coming back, Obama said, as a result of the auto industry’s recovery.
“Today you’ve got buses that are running again, streets that are well lit again,” he said. “You can feel the difference. You can feel something special happening in Detroit.”
The bailout agreement was tied to several additional efficiency and technology standards, which have led to American auto producers spearheading efforts into low-carbon emission vehicles and other advanced technologies.
As a result of these standards, fuel economy has reached an all-time high and the cost for electric car batteries has fallen 70 percent. Obama said the American auto industry has found a balance between sustainability and profit.
“The auto industry here in the United States has figured out that we can make more fuel efficient cars that reduce carbon pollution that causes climate change and make a profit and put more people to work,” he said. “There’s no contradiction between creating jobs and economic growth and caring for the environment.”
Looking more broadly at the country as a whole, Obama said Detroit’s progress is a lesson in how to approach the future.
“What’s true of Detroit is true of the country,” he said. “Here, now, I want you to remember how far we’ve come. The reason I want to remind you is not because I’m on the ticket but because I want Americans to have confidence in where we need to go.”
During his speech, Obama also addressed the Flint water crisis concerning the tainted water supply in the city following a switch from Detroit city water to using the Flint River as a water source. The crisis and the delayed response by city and state officials to declare a state of emergency in Flint has been a recent topic of national conversation.
Obama also met with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver on Tuesday in Washington to discuss the issue. He did not visit the city during his time in Michigan.
In his speech, Obama said he would support the mayor and people of Flint through the crisis.
“I told her we were going to have her back and all of the people of Flint’s back as we work our way through this terrible tragedy,” he said. “It is a reminder of why we can’t shortchange the basic services we provide for our people.”
Obama concluded his speech by expressing his confidence in the American people and the future of the country.
“I’m hopeful for the future because every single American I’ve met would never stop believing that people who love this country would change it for the better,” he said. “You are what makes America great, and I want you to know that I have faith in you.”