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Chicago Sun-Times: Even In Detroit, Obama Isn't Muffled

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Chicago Sun-Times: Even in Detroit, Obama isn't muffled

It takes chutzpah to come here and criticize the main business of Motown -- the auto industry -- especially if you're a presidential candidate who may want the support of organized labor (or you may have shrugged and figured it's all going to John Edwards, anyway.)

But if you're going to puncture the story line that U.S. automakers have clung to ever since the 1973 oil crisis was banished to subliminal memory in the 1990s -- that the car industry makes the kind of big, snappy vehicles Americans want and that labor costs keep them uncompetitive with the Japanese -- you'd better do it out in the open in Detroit rather than in California.

Barack Obama said as much Monday as he spoke to members of the Economic Club of Detroit.

And there is no better place in this city to put a muzzle on those whiny carmaker stories than in the building where the annual Detroit Auto Show is held: Cobo Center.

Standing in one of the rooms in the center, Obama did not mince words when he said automakers need to be realistic about how they arrived at this nadir in their economic history while foreign carmakers flourished selling cars with superlative gas mileage.

"I know these are difficult times for automakers," Obama said, "and I know that not all of the industry's problems are of its own making. But we have to be honest about how we arrived at this point."

He later put it bluntly in a press conference: Carmakers need to be "yanked into the 21st century."

And, in his speech, he outlined ways to do this by making cars more fuel efficient, by giving the auto industry funds to retool, and by providing financial inducements for Americans to switch from gas guzzlers to more modest fuel imbibers.

Obama's speech was a step toward putting some more substance on his energy and economic policies.

Considering the crowd, he didn't draw cheers or bring anyone to their feet as his stump speeches often do. The audience was cordial and offered polite applause, nothing more.

The automakers have certainly heard the message about their gas guzzling creations before and have tried to respond in the past. But they haven't worked at it diligently.

'No easy way out'
When Toyota unveiled its Corolla in the mid-1960s, American carmakers did not immediately follow suit.

It wasn't until the Carter administration, when the price of gasoline shot through the roof, that the U.S. industry responded with cars like the Pinto (which, unfortunately turned out to be a highway disaster).

And through all the decades since Japan became an automotive force, the Americans haven't figured out exactly what to do to compete. They've used Japanese assembly line methods; they've built smaller cars. And the Japanese continued to roll over them with better quality, more attractive vehicles. Now Toyota is the No. 1 carmaker in the world, surpassing the mighty General Motors.

Obama says American cars need to be much more fuel efficient, noting a Japanese car gets 45 miles to the gallon while U.S. cars only get 27.5 mpg -- and that's a number U.S. cars have been coasting at for about two decades.

This is not just a problem for Detroit, Obama insisted, especially when one considers that one in 10 American jobs is related to the auto industry. It's a national problem, he said.

"Automakers continue to refuse to make the transition to fuel-efficient production because they say it's too expensive at a time when they're losing profits and struggling under the weight of massive health-care costs," Obama said.

"This time, they're actually right. The auto industry's refusal to act for so long has left it mired in a predicament for which there is no easy way out."

Here are some of Obama's proposals for reviving the moribund industry:

* Raise fuel standards by 4 percent a year. (Although, as one reporter noted, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin believes this will be the undoing of Chrysler Corp.)

* Provide tax incentives to help carmakers modernize their existing plants and build more fuel-efficient vehicles.

* Help defray the companies' horrendous health-care costs, but in return expect them to invest the savings back into the production of energy-saving cars.

* Expand the tax breaks for buying hybrids and ultra-efficient vehicles that use biofuels.

By transforming the cars we drive and the fuels we use, Americans could consume 2.5 million fewer barrels of oil per day and reduce pollution from 50 million cars by 2020.

Now that Obama is being chauffeured by the Secret Service, he unfortunately had to abandon his energy efficient Chevy Tahoe with flexible-fuel technology -- it took ethanol or gasoline. Instead, he's being driven around in Secret Service gas guzzlers. It's something his aides say he is trying hard to change.

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