President Barack Obama got a real taste of Detroit on Wednesday, grabbing lunch at a neighborhood brewery and making a purchase at a nearby Shinola store before heading downtown to spend a half-hour at the North American International Auto Show, a first for Obama as president.
The lunch and shopping stop were part of a day designed to celebrate the resurgence of the domestic automotive industry and the city of Detroit, both of which went through bankruptcy within the last five years before re-emerging, the auto industry with record sales last year, and the city with a rebuilding boom.
“The year before I took office, the auto industry laid off 400,000. We were in a free fall,” Obama said during a speech at a United Auto Workers-General Motors human resources facility. “There were no private investors who were going to step up. … More than 1 million Americans would have lost their jobs. And not just in the auto industry. Their livelihoods were at stake as well.”
U.S. auto manufacturing employment has climbed 49 percent from its low point of 623,300 in June 2009 when General Motors and Chrysler were in the midst of their $182 billion taxpayer-funded bailout, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But with 929,400 such jobs in existence as of December 2015, industry employment remains significantly below its January 2005 level of 1.1 million jobs.
Obama said the structured bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler were worth the investment. “Because the auto industry came back, it gave the capacity for the city of Detroit to come back too.”
Obama and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan made an unscheduled stop at the Jolly Pumpkin brewery, where they dined with Tom Kartsotis, the founder of the Shinola watch company; Tolulope Sonuyi, a physician who works with Detroit youths in violence prevention and intervention programs; and Teana Dowdell, an autoworker at a Detroit-area GM plant.
After lunch and the Shinola stop, it was off to downtown to take in the auto show.
“Next year, I’ve got to say goodbye to the beast,” said Obama, referring to the presidential limousine he usually travels in. “So I need to do a little browsing now.”
One person in the crowd yelled out, “Ford.” Another said, “Cadillac.” But Obama said the first brand new vehicle he bought was a Jeep Grand Cherokee. “And I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to buy now,” he said.
About half of the auto show was blocked off by a big black curtain so Obama could tour the show without dealing with the crowds. Plenty of people were waiting outside the curtain to see the rest of the show.
His first stop was a ZF automated driving display.
“This is cool,” Obama told Brian Johnson, a communications employee at ZF.
He then went and checked out the Fiat Chrysler Automobile plug-in hybrid model of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which was unveiled at the show, and learned more from Mitch Clauw, Fiat Chrysler’s vice president of vehicle engineering.
“You guys remember ‘Get Shorty,’ don’t you?” he said, referring to the mobster movie based on the book by Michigan author Elmore Leonard and starring Gene Hackman, “It’s cool driving a minivan.”
Then it was on to the 2017 Chevy Bolt, the new electric vehicle with a 200-mile range. He toured the display with GM President Dan Ammann and the head of the Chevy brand, Alan Batey.
He first admired a bright yellow Corvette, then got into a metallic orange Bolt.
“That one is juiced up a little more. That looks all right,” Obama said as he veered toward the Corvette.
Finally he swung by the Ford stand where he saw the Ford Escape Hybrid.
At the UAW-GM center along the riverfront, the president was welcomed by some of the people whose jobs and plants were in jeopardy seven years ago.
“There’s still plenty of work to do but you can feel something special happening in Detroit,” Obama said. “When you hear people claiming America is in decline they don’t know what they’re talking about. These are the same folks that would have let this industry go under.”
The auto renaissance has been dampened in recent weeks in a global market roiled by a slowdown in China and collapsing oil prices. Fiat Chrysler shares fell as much as 7 percent Wednesday to a new 52-week low of $6.60 before rebounding slightly to $6.89. GM closed Wednesday at $29.42, down from the $34.01 it traded at on Dec. 31.
Ford shares are down nearly 17 percent from the first of the year.
It was GM’s growth and profits from China that carried it through the Great Recession. Now the company’s recovery in North America is offsetting the troubles in China and other emerging markets.
While Obama wasn’t traveling to Flint to examine the city’s water crisis firsthand, he mentioned the city’s ongoing crisis in his remarks.
“The only job that’s more important to me than president is the job of father,” he said. “I would be beside myself if my kids’ health would be at risk,” he said. “Yesterday I met with Mayor (Karen) Weaver and I told her we’re going to have her back and all the people of Flint’s back as they work their way through this terrible tragedy. It is a reminder why you can’t shortchange basic services you provide your people.”
When asked whether Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder should resign, deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters on Air Force One, ”Our view is right now (is that) everybody should be focused on the actual problem.”