Obama focuses on positives, cautions voters at auto show

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 - 9:05pm

Auto employment from 2005 - 2015

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Anjali Alangaden

DETROIT — Under the guise of searching for a new car to use after he will no longer be able to ride around in the presidential motorcade, President Barack Obama visited Michigan Wednesday to stop by the Detroit auto show, commenting on the economic progress the city has made in the past year.

Amid the Flint water crisis and Detroit teacher sick-out strikes, Obama chose to focus on a more positive note for Michigan: the auto industry.

Since the then-unpopular auto bailout in 2009, 646,000 jobs have been added to the Detroit’s economy in manufacturing and retail, which Obama said has caused Detroit’s unemployment rate to be at its lowest since 2003.

Over 60 percent of Americans opposed the auto bailout in polls taken in December 2008 and March 2009, but today, the president said during his remarks, the progress proves it was the right decision.

As of December 2014, all auto companies involved in the bailout finished repaying the majority bailout funds.

Last year in preparation for his State of the Union address, the president stopped at the Ford Motor manufacturing plant in Wayne, Mich., to discuss the resurgence of the auto industry and the ways in which technical education can help students and the national economy. A year later, the president commended the city for its achievements in the same optimistic fashion, but without the policy emphasis he had before.

Other than re-announcing his two-year free community college plan — which he originally issued a day after giving his speech in Wayne — the president did not mention any initiatives for his final year in office. He lauded a national all-time high in high school graduation rates, but said it is not enough in this economy.

“We’ve got to make college affordable for every American,” Obama said. “And college doesn’t mean necessarily a four-year degree. It might mean a community college. It might mean a technical school. But you’re going to need more than just high school, which is why I’ve laid out a plan to provide two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student. I’m going to fight to get that done, to get that moving this year.”

His proposal, codified into a bill presented to Congress in July, is currently awaiting attention before committee. Given the Republican-controlled Congress, it faces an uphill battle to passage. 

The president only briefly mentioned technical education and apprentice programs, a subject which he built up in his speech last January.

Instead of announcing policies, he touched on several key issues to Michigan residents — such as the Flint water crisis. Obama did not visit Flint while in the state, but met with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver Tuesday at the White House, and in his speech expressed his concern about the situation. 

“I am very proud of what I’ve done as president — but the only job that’s more important to me is the job of father,” Obama said. “And I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids’ health could be at risk.”

The bulk of the speech was spent reiterating the story of the auto bailout and illustrating the continued vitality of the initiatives that came out of it. Obama highlighted how prior to the bailout in 2009, the auto industry experienced a 27-year lull in auto sales, but over this past year, the industry hit an all-time high.

Additionally, as the auto industry is experiencing a resurgence, the city as a whole is as well, he said, noting that the unemployment rate in Detroit has been cut by more than half.

Just from his short stay in the city, Obama said he can see a difference.

“Today you’ve got buses that are running again, streets that are well lit again, new homes and businesses getting off the ground again,” Obama said. “There’s still plenty of work to do, but you can feel the difference. You can feel something special happening in Detroit.”

And while last year Obama said the auto industry needed to “change with the times” and adapt to survive, on Wednesday he adopted slightly different rhetoric, citing the innovations he witnessed at the Detroit auto show prior to giving the speech — including plug-in hybrid, electric and fuel- efficient cars.

“You've got to be thinking about the future, not just the past,” Obama said. “And that’s what you’re doing here in Detroit… You’re working on self-driving cars that one day could prevent accidents and save lives. This year, my administration is going to take steps to get more of those cars on the road.”

Yet, deviating from the accomplished tone of the rest of his speech, Obama also advised Detroit residents to not be satisfied with the progress thus far.

“This is not to make an argument for complacency,” Obama said. “I’m not suggesting we should be satisfied where we are. Because what is true is, the economy has been changing in profound ways for the last 20, 30 years.”

Obama cited his proposed community college program, as well, as the continuation of strong unions — an idea which the audience, composed of mainly United Auto Worker members, responded well to — as an example of this future progress. He noted that while unions were important to ensure workers benefits, federally funded benefits — such as Social Security and Medicare — also need to be preserved.

Though the president has not endorsed a candidate in the 2016 presidential race, his speech often veered toward urging voters to be wary of who they elect.

“When you hear people — I won’t say who — but when you hear people claiming that America is in decline, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Obama said. “They’re peddling fiction during a political season … They’re racing to see who can talk down America the most. But remember — and this is why I want everybody to remember — these are the same folks who would have let this industry go under … And so when I hear, today, some of these folks running for president, who can’t bring themselves to admit what you guys have accomplished, I don’t want you to take that seriously.”

Furthermore, the president asked for Americans to remember the story of the auto bailout when considering presidential candidates — keeping in mind the progress which has been made, despite its initial disfavor.

“It wasn’t popular,” Obama said. “It wasn’t even popular in Detroit. Wasn’t even popular in Michigan. But I said at the time, I didn’t run for president to be popular. I ran for president to do what needed to be done.”

Despite fervent opinions shouted from the audience, the president refused to disclose the model of car he intended to purchase — just that it would be an American one.