Monday, May 14, 2007

Obama drops the auto industry. Does he lose the UAW?

Barack Obama talks tough to the U.S. auto industry. Is it courageous or foolhardy--conventional wisdom holds that the Dems need the unions, not so much for their donations, but for their grassroots manpower and high voting turnout. But Obama, who has some free trade sentiment in past elections, is not sticking with the tried and true. Kevin Naughton reports:
"Sen. Obama embarrassed himself in Detroit with his lack of understanding of the problems facing the automobile industry, and what it will really take to fix them," the conservative-leaning Detroit News said in an editorial beside a political cartoon mocking Obama for criticizing a Detroit SUV that turns out to be a Toyota Land Cruiser. During his speech, the auto execs in the crowd—and there were many—began muttering that he didn't know what he was talking about. (One factual gaffe getting a lot of traction is Obama's assertion that Japanese cars average 45mpg, when the actual mileage is closer 30mpg). "It was definitely uncomfortable," says Eric Foster, a Detroit political consultant who sat near tables full of auto execs. "The mood lightened when he took on the oil industry."

Obama had barely left Detroit's Cobo Hall before lobbyists for the automakers and the United Auto Workers began churning out stats to counter his argument. From the UAW: the jobs of 17,000 workers will be put at risk by Obama's proposal to require a 4 percent annual increase in gas mileage (a suggestion, by the way, first made by President Bush). From Chrysler: Obama's offer of $7 billion to help with the automaker's health-care costs translates to $29 per car, compared to a benefits burden of $1,500 per car the U.S. automakers now bear. "Twenty-nine dollars," says Chrysler spokesman Colin McBean, "is really not a lot of help."

Indeed, dismissing Detroit as a relic of the bygone American Century is politically popular just about everywhere at the moment. In fact, Obama didn't even have to leave town to find support on that front. After his speech, he raced off to two fund-raisers in Detroit, including a $2,300-a-plate dinner at Seldom Blues, a hip jazz restaurant atop the General Motors headquarters building along the Detroit River. The restaurant was packed with about 250 people, but the crowd didn't include auto execs, UAW leaders or Mayor Kilpatrick. That might work for now, as Obama attempts to define himself as an independent thinker. But ultimately, like Al Gore, Obama will have to make nice with those he criticized in Motown. Why? For the last four presidential elections, Michigan has gone Blue, unlike most Midwestern states. "In the end, the presidential race is all about electoral votes," says Kilpatrick. "If Michigan is not important to a particular candidate, that's fine. But we've got 18 electoral votes. That's pretty significant." If Obama hopes to win the White House, he might make his next drive through Detroit more of a joy ride.

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