Obama’s Challenge to Think Big


In the aftermath of the president’s speech to Congress, we’re hearing a lot of praise and a lot of skepticism. Maybe both are in order. On the whole, the speech was masterful—in part at least because of its tone, welcoming engagement from the opposition:

And while his program is certainly open to criticism, he made clear that he would rather engage critics than simply defeat them. He attempted to be the grown-up in the room, willing to accept responsibility and prodding others to do the same.

What struck me most was Obama’s willingness to deal candidly with the challenges that have angered and frightened so many. Regarding the auto industry:

We are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.

Obama 2008The actual agenda for the car industry has yet to be written, much less fought over, and so it will take time for those who are fed up with Detroit to see beyond their desire to punish it. Their case is similar to public anger toward Wall Street and the bankers. As much as they are to blame, we as buyers, investors, dupes, and fools were the great enablers. There were few outcries or grassroots moves to stop them.

Regarding the auto industry collapse, we, too, can take plenty of blame—for wanting and buying bloated and inefficient Detroit cars for so many years and enabling the industry’s business-as-usual practices.

Obama has very big plans. He proposes a synthesis that will incorporate more than fixing the banks and the auto industry. To reform energy policy, health care, and education will be to make short-term stimulus fixes stick. To reform the auto industry will require that these other, larger challenges be met. That is surely true as far as energy and health care are concerned. There can be no new auto industry without tackling those issues.

Whether the public and the Congress will accept Obama’s grand design remains to be seen. But his demonstration of how these problems are interlinked was a great service.

Do you think the speech conveyed real hope for the auto industry? Or was it just “kind words”?


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