Up to us

Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat — of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.

—President Barack Obama, Jan. 20, 2009

I was sitting at AJ's Music Café in Ferndale last Saturday, drinking papaya juice and looking up at a large reproduction of the now-famous Shepard Fairey "hope" poster of Barack Obama.

Suddenly, it dawned on me, in a way it hadn't before that — he really is the president of the United States. Not only was our eight-year national nightmare over; for the first time in my adult life, we had a leader both worthy of being admired, and cool enough to be on a pop art poster in a hip café.

And we had elected him. Enough people — nearly 70 million of them — for whatever mix of reasons, had risen above ancient selfishness and prejudice to do the right thing.

Not loathing the leader of your nation is a very wonderful thing, especially if you still have some of that old love of country. That doesn't mean we won't disagree with him, or that he won't make mistakes. What it means is that it is our country again.

You may think I have far too rosy a view of President Obama, and you may be right. That doesn't matter much. This does: No matter what we think of our new president, there is a mistake it is essential to avoid — expecting him to fix things for us.

What Obama has done is given us the chance to do that. But we have to do most of the heavy lifting ourselves across this nation, and maybe especially in Detroit and Michigan.

Oh, President Obama pledged to do what he can to see that the federal government is a help to us. Everything he said in that inaugural address — read it over again if you can — made me hopeful. He spoke the language of life and renewal, after eight years of ruin, perverted ideology, darkness and death. Everything he said was about that: "We will build the roads and the bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place."

But he won't do it for us. We have to do it together. Our economy is sick, very sick, more so than most people know. More sick in Detroit than elsewhere. Nobody knows whether the auto industry will survive. President Obama may be willing and able to do more for it than his sorry predecessor. But if General Motors and Chrysler think the Obama administration and the nation are willing or able to hand out billions and billions each month, I suspect they are in for a rude awakening. Which would mean that we who live here are in for a major crash.

If you are reading this and live in southeast Michigan, you should know that your entire way of life has been made possible by the auto industry, even if you've never had anything to do with it. Our prosperity and our economy and our cultural jewels were created by huge auto industry profits. Yet today there are none. There haven't been any domestic auto industry profits for years, and it isn't clear when there will be, if ever.

By the way, I keep running into people who think Chrysler and General Motors were "saved" at the last moment by an outgoing President Bush. They weren't saved by anyone. Bush merely gave them enough money — $13.4 billion — to allow them to survive long enough to hand over the mess they're in to Obama.

What you need to remember is that both companies have until Feb. 17 to file a detailed plan illustrating how they intend to restructure themselves. They then have only until the end of March to show, to the government's satisfaction, that they can do it. They need to convince Washington that they have a believable plan to get themselves in shape and become profitable again by some reasonable point of time. Or else the feds pull the plug.

In which case, the apocalypse.

Speaking of ominous signs, by the way: It has been well over a month since George W. announced he was grudgingly going to open the federal wallet to give GM and Chrysler a stay of execution. By now, I would have thought we would have heard at least something about how General Motors is going to reform itself to stay alive. At the very least I thought they'd have pulled the plug on the Hummer, or publicly executed whoever designed the Pontiac Aztek.

However, they haven't done one thing I can see. Chrysler, to its credit, has come up with a gutsy little plan for survival: alliance with Fiat, the Italian automaker. They wouldn't get any money from Fiat, at least not right away, though Fiat would take a 35 percent ownership stake in Chrysler. But the two companies would have access to each other's dealer networks, and have product lines that seem complimentary.

True, to some this may sound like déjà vu all over again. Fiat had a brief and unhappy liaison with General Motors from 2000-2005. General Motors paid billions for one-fifth of Fiat, and billions more to get rid of it later, a deal that probably says more about the brilliant strategists at GM than Fiat. We're living in a different world now, and the dynamics would be different.

True also: Fiat hasn't always had the world's best reputation for high-quality cars, to put it mildly. They are, however, better now.

The Fiat deal does have one major string attached: The government first has to agree to give Chrysler another $3 billion that it hasn't yet agreed to pony up. And there are serious threats of congressional opposition. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, a Democrat with a seat on the banking committee, wants to stop the Chrysler deal cold.

Why? Because, as he sees it, it would be paying our taxpayer dollars to subsidize a foreign automaker. Fair enough ... but what is a foreign automaker? How many states have used taxpayer dollars and tax breaks to lure foreign automakers to build plants here? The Chrysler-Fiat partnership, if it works, would certainly keep more of the 49,000 Chrysler workers on the job than any other potential merger that has been mentioned.

Frankly, I don't know whether a Fiat partnership would work well enough to keep Chrysler alive and return it to profitability. What I do know is that it seems like an inspired and creative attempt on the part of the weakest automaker to stay alive. That's the kind of thinking we need in this new era.

So what's your move, GM?

One cheer for the Detroit newspapers: Some weeks ago, I wrote about the despair older people were feeling at the news that no Detroit papers would be delivered to anyone four days a week. Last weekend, Gannett relented, and announced that elder care facilities with more than 200 people would be able to get papers delivered in bulk. This will make the patients of speech pathologist Alice Rhein, who alerted me to this problem, considerably happier.

Still unknown: Whether the state Capitol will qualify for bulk delivery should L. Brooks Patterson, now 70, become our next governor.

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