"increase Fuel Mileage by 4%" - Obama

by : Jenny Mclane

In his first trip to Michigan last Monday as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama, took a big risk and told the leaders of the region that the Big Three should increase their vehicles' fuel mileage by four percent which is approximately a mile per gallon each year. This is for the purpose of curbing dependence on foreign oil. Obama also is offering billions to aid the automakers.

Unfortunately, that was not the message that the Detroit automakers wanted to hear. "How do you impose that cost on an industry that's going through this right now?" said General Motors Corp. spokesman Greg Martin. "(Our) position is that four percent is simply not achievable without great consequence to the industry and consumers."

In his 35-minute speech before a huge crowd at a Detroit Economic Club meeting in Cobo Center, Obama offered the automakers a carrot if they improve fuel mileage: up to $7 billion through 2017 to help defray costly retiree health care costs; or $3 billion over ten years to help them retool their plants to make more fuel-efficient vehicles.

"Today, there are two kinds of car companies: those that mass produce fuel-efficient cars and those that will," said the Illinois Democrat. "The American auto industry can no longer afford to be one of those that will."

Obama, who has drawn a frenzy elsewhere, got a standing ovation as he started with his talk. But he heard only polite applause during his candid speech. Obama, 45, acknowledged that he chose a difficult venue to deliver his opinions on fuel efficiency, but he said he wants to be consistent, and not just tell the Detroit crowd what they might have wanted to hear.

"Here in Detroit, three giants of American industry are hemorrhaging jobs and profits as foreign competitors answer the rising global demand for fuel-efficient cars," he said. "America simply cannot continue on this path. The need to drastically change our energy policy is no longer a debatable proposition For the sake of our security, our economy, our jobs and our planet, the age of oil must end in our time."

He delivered a direct blow like at Detroit automakers, saying that for years they have lobbied against increasing fuel-efficiency standards. "Even as they've shed thousands of jobs and billions in profits over the past few years, they continued to reward failure in some cases with lucrative bonuses for CEOs," said Obama, who also met with Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick during his brief visit to Michigan.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that it would cost $114 billion to defray expenses related to the improved fuel standards that Obama supports. According to the estimate, the Big Three would bear 80 percent of that cost, adding $3,000 to $5,000 to the price tag of each vehicle.

Mike Moran, Ford Motor Co.'s spokesman in Washington, said that Ford supports "equitable" reform of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations, with "auto companies, fuel providers and consumers all involved."

The United Auto Workers (UAW) also is concerned about modifications in fuel-efficiency requirements. In a letter last Monday to a U.S. House committee considering such a proposal, UAW legislative director Alan Reuther said those standards could cost the jobs of 17,000 auto workers and 50,000 auto parts workers.

After his speech, Obama told reporters that his plan would cost the auto industry billions of dollars. But, he added, "at some point you have to recognize the path you're on isn't working. The sooner we start, the better off we're going to be."

A national poll released Monday showed U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., leading Obama 34 percent to 26. Obama had held a slight lead over Clinton last week.

Notwithstanding the chilly response that his fuel-efficiency plan got from carmakers, Obama was not without supporters in the crowd. The Rev. Gail Slater, a pastor from Silverwood in the Thumb, commended Obama for taking on a tough issue in the Motor City. "It took courage but he said it at a time when gas prices are so high, we're all ready to do something about it," she said.

Mark Jones, 45, of Farmington Hills said Obama delivered a "sound speech" and offered timely comments for a Detroit audience. "But I'd like to hear more about an urban agenda," he said. "And on his energy policy, he didn't say anything about nuclear energy."

Jeannie Jackson of Southfield, the president of EEO Monitoring Consultants, found Obama interesting. "He seems like he has good moral values and that's what I'm looking for," said Jackson, 60. "I like him, but I can't say I'd vote for him, yet. I'm watching. "He brings some excitement and that can help rejuvenate the party in the election. It's good that he's like a rock star. Let's see if he can back it up."

Kilpatrick spokesman Matt Allen said the mayor "had an excellent meeting in his office" with Obama. In a statement, Allen described the meeting as "serious and straightforward," but said Kilpatrick is not prepared to endorse a candidate.