One cheer for Obama

"I believe that the nation that invented
the automobile cannot walk away from it."
—President Barack Obama, 2009

Last week was a good one for General Motors.

Think about that sentence. As recently as December 2008, it seemed very possible that nobody would ever be able to write that sentence again. General Motors and Chrysler were on the ropes.

Sneering Republican senators flatly opposed bailing out the automakers. "Why should we believe your firms are capable of restructuring now when you weren't able to do it under more benign conditions?" said U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. Other Republicans, including former Detroit Tiger pitcher Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Bob Corker of Tennessee, were just as bad. Thanks to them, the U.S. Senate voted against giving the automakers a dime. Economists at the Ann Arbor-based CAR, the Center for Automotive Research, told me then that if Chrysler and, especially, General Motors, went out of business, it might doom Ford too.

That's because Ford uses some of the same suppliers, which wouldn't be able to survive without two of their three major clients. How many jobs would that cost the entire economy, counting ripple effects?  Kristen Dziczek at CAR showed me their calculations: Three million jobs. Had Chrysler and GM been forced to go belly-up in January 2009, they would have taken the stock market down the mineshaft with them. Can you say, Great Depression II? Think Detroit and its suburbs looking like some movie about life five years after the nuclear holocaust.

That's what we would be looking at and living now, had John McCain been elected president, or if the Republicans in the United States Senate had their way. But even George W. Bush knew that was unacceptable. At the last minute, he used $17 billion in Emergency Economic Stabilization Funds to keep Chrysler and General Motors afloat. Then President Obama threw in billions more, helped steer Chrysler toward a merger with Fiat; helped GM go through a "soft" bankruptcy that enabled the company to emerge stripped of bad debt, health care obligations and obsolete factories.

The naysayers attacked what the president was doing, every step of the way. They moaned about interference with the free enterprise system when his team insisted on the firing of clueless CEO Rick Wagoner, a step that was vital to assure the nation that the business-as-usual culture of arrogance and stupidity at GM would no longer be tolerated.

Detroit's so-called experts then were shocked when Edward Whitacre Jr. was installed as GM's chair and later, CEO. Why, the man openly admitted he didn't know a thing about the car business. How could some retired telecommunications executive possibly fix General Motors? Simple: By not being wedded to the failed old system, that's how. In truth, installing Whitacre was perhaps the best thing the Obama administration did for the General.

Whitacre, a hard-charging Texan, wasn't hampered in the least by not being part of the good old boy network. He made the tough decisions. He promoted those who were performing and got rid of those who weren't, period. And when Whitacre decided that Fritz Henderson wasn't cutting it as Wagoner's replacement, he dumped him, and took over the job himself. His priority wasn't his pals. It was saving and refocusing the company. Which, as a matter of fact, the Texan did, at least for now.

Want proof? A year ago, General Motors lost $12.9 billion in the second three months of the year. That's almost $6 million every hour. Then came bankruptcy — followed by a turnaround that was hard to believe. This year, GM made a profit of $1.3 billion in the same quarter — and worldwide revenue was $10 billion greater than the year before. Now, the company is reportedly preparing a stock offering, so they can start repaying the taxpayers and no longer be known as "Government Motors."

Last week, amid all that stunningly good news, Whitacre stunned Detroit once again by announcing that he was leaving. He's stepping down as CEO at the end of this month, and will be gone as chairman of the board by the end of the year. His replacement will be a man he groomed for the job, another hard-charging telecom executive, one Daniel Akerson.

General Motors is not all that secure yet. The company can issue stock, true. But they still have to persuade investors that they are a safe bet, and that shares are worth as much as GM hopes. Nor is their continued success as an automaker certain. Their market share is still less than 20 percent, just a hair ahead of that of Ford and Toyota, either or both of which could easily overtake it.

But there are lots of encouraging signs beyond two profitable quarters. The company has been adding to its cash reserves, and the profits were made not by shuffling paper but by actually selling cars and trucks, mainly in the difficult North American market.

If there is anything baffling about all this, it is that President Obama isn't getting — and taking — more credit for what's happened. It was his decision, after all, that gave this dying company another lease on life. That's what anyone in these parts needs to think about.  

The mosque at Ground Zero:
You could feel Democrats wincing all across the country when President Obama said he supported the right of Muslims to build a new mosque on land close to where the twin towers came tumbling down on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Let me be clear. As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in the country." This was immediately — and inaccurately — reported as saying that Obama supported building a mosque at Ground Zero.

What he said was that they have the right to do so, if they owned the land and were in compliance with local codes and zoning ordinances. That's the same position as that of the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who is both a Republican and a Jew.

But it's not a popular position nationally. Nobody is an easier target than radical Muslims, and the most universally hated people in the nation are undoubtedly the fanatic killers who hijacked those planes, nine years ago. The president was speedily denounced.

Democrats worried his remarks would make it even worse for them in the November elections. But in fact, the president was doing what we pay him to do. He was being a statesman, not a politician. CNN and Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, the most intellectually impressive journalist covering foreign policy today, put it best:

"The debate over whether an Islamic center should be built a few blocks from the World Trade Center has ignored a fundamental point. If there is to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute," he wrote, adding: "We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them." That's what a sane person might call common sense. After years of idiocy, we have a leader who is on the right side of history. But if you can't stand sanity, don't worry.

Sarah Palin is waiting, you betcha.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]