Obama visits brewery, auto show in whirlwind visit – Detroit Free Press
President Barack Obama, in Detroit on Wednesday for his first visit to the North American International Auto Show, weighed in on the Flint water crisis at the top of his speech to autoworkers and their families at a UAW education and training center, saying of Mayor Karen Weaver and the residents of Flint, “we’re going to have her back and all the people of Flint’s back.”
Obama didn’t travel to Flint to examine the city’s water crisis firsthand, but he met with Weaver privately in Washington on Tuesday evening to discuss the high concentrations of lead found in Flint’s drinking water, offering continued logistical and technical support for efforts to address the crisis, and dispatching an official from the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate the federal response.
In a summary of that meeting, the White House said Obama “heard firsthand how the residents of Flint are dealing with the ongoing public health crisis and the challenges that still exist for the city.”
On Wednesday, before he addressed the crowd at the UAW-GM Human Resources Center on auto matters, he said: “The only job that’s more important to me than president is the job of father. I would be beside myself if my kids’ health would be at risk. 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.”
Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when, in a cost-cutting move, the city temporarily switched its source of drinking water from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to Flint River water treated at the Flint water treatment plant. State Department of Environmental Quality officials have admitted they made a disastrous mistake when they failed to require the addition of needed corrosion control chemicals. As a result, the corrosive Flint River water caused lead from services lines and fixtures to leach into the drinking water.
The president sat down with CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan for a CBS “Sunday Morning” interview Wednesday while he was in Michigan, and told Cowan the handling of the Flint water crisis is “inexcusable.”
“What is inexplicable and inexcusable is once people figured out there was a problem and that there was lead in the water. The notion that immediately families were not notified, things were not shut down — that shouldn’t happen anywhere,” Obama said. “It’s also an indication that sometimes we downplay the role that an effective government has to play in protecting public health and safety of people and clearly the system broke down.”
On Jan. 5, Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency and Jan. 12 he mobilized the National Guard to assist with distribution of bottled water and water filters to Flint residents. Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint on Saturday.
Earlier Wednesday, when asked whether Snyder should resign, White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters on Air Force One: “Our view is right now everybody should be focused on the actual problem.”
Obama was in town to celebrate the resurgence of the domestic auto industry and the city of Detroit.
General Motors and Chrysler and the city all entered bankruptcy during the last five years and each emerged with new life. The auto industry posted the best sales in history last year, and the city has seen a bit of a rebuilding renaissance in its greater downtown and in some neighborhoods, though there’s much work to be done across the city.
“The year before I took office, the auto industry laid off 400,000. We were in a free fall,” Obama said during remarks at the UAW-GM Human Resources Center. “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% from its trough 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 Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. But at 929,400 jobs as of December 2015, industry employment remains significantly below its January 2005 level of 1.11 million jobs.
He 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.”
The president told the crowd, which included some of the people whose jobs and plants were in jeopardy seven years ago, that 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% 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% from the first of the year.
It was GM’s growth and profits from China that carried it through the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Now the company’s recovery in North America is offsetting the troubles in China and other emerging markets.
Before the president went on a special tour of the auto show, he 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, which is next to the restaurant on Canfield; Tolulope Sonuyi, a physician engaged with Detroit youths in violence prevention and intervention programs tied to the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and Teana Dowdell, an autoworker at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant.
Obama ate a JP Cheddar Burger and Truffle fries with the group before stopping at Shinola to buy a journal. Then it was off to Cobo Center and the auto show.
“Next year, I’ve got to say good-bye to the Beast,” Obama said, 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.” Obama said the first brand-new car he bought was a Jeep Grand Cherokee. “And I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to buy now,” he said.
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 unveiled at the show and got the lowdown 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. The car will be built at GM’s plant in Orion Township. 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 the 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.