Obama: America “Cannot Walk Away” From the Automobile

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama last night emphasized his administration’s commitment to keeping the domestic auto industry afloat, while offering only a passing mention to the nation’s mass transit systems. Said Obama:

As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices. But 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.

With energy policy at the top of his agenda, the president pledged investment in solar and wind power, biofuels, "clean coal," and "more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America."

If indeed there are serious plans to include municipal mass transit — which millions of working Americans also depend on — as part of the mix, Obama is playing it close to the vest. Public transportation was mentioned only once during last night’s speech. Along with "jobs rebuilding our roads and bridges," the president said Americans would be put to work by "expanding mass transit."

What did you think of the speech, particularly in light of the hit-and-miss stimulus package? Do you remain hopeful that Obama "gets it" when it comes to the value of public transportation in reducing oil dependence and fostering sustainable communities, or is his seemingly unflagging commitment to propping up Detroit too much?

Finally, is it true that Americans can’t "walk away" from the automobile? This may be a valid point. Our obesity epidemic and general lack of sidewalks make it pretty tough to walk away from anything.

  • Larry Littlefield

    While not referring to transit directly, I believe he did refer to it indirectly.

    “My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue. It reflects the stark reality of what we’ve inherited — a trillion-dollar budget deficit, a financial crisis and a costly recession,” Mr. Obama said. “Given these realities, everyone in this chamber, Democrats and Republicans, will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me.”

  • Chris

    I still feel even if he doesnt get it as much as we’d want, he gets it a lot more than those in office the past 28+ years. So he’s at least giving us a place to start. And we all know, once you give people a chance to ride, they will. Look at the ridership already in Phoenix. They’re pushing past where they planned.

    Yes I want more rail, more mass transit, more electrified train lines. But I don’t feel we’re having a bad time of it right now with where Obama is leading us. He gets it more than most.

  • Credit crisis, recession, energy, global warming health care, education . . . I can’t fault Obama for not taking on transpo policy as a “top tier” priority along with these others, as much as I’d like him to. Maybe in his second term.

    I did note that Obama suggested in his speech that the automobile had been invented in the United States, which is not correct.

  • Here in Miami, I walked and biked away from my car last year. Thousands in savings a year, no traffic frustration, and a shinier start to the morning are just a few of the reasons why I’ll never look back.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here is the problem — the Democrats are the party of feudalism, those with advantages get to keep them.

    So we have a suburban, auto-oriented country. Certain people benefit from that, notably sellers of suburban homes and automobiles. And that is who has to be pandered to.

    Since Democrats want the government to make decisions for people, all the Republicans have to do is accuse them of forcing people to ride bicycles and use mass transit, and they will respond by forcing people NOT to use mass transit and bicycles. That has worked ever since Jimmy Carter. Kind of like accusing the Democrats of caring about poor people.

    I can only hope that, once the “stimulus” is over, highways will join transit on the list of things the federal government cannot afford. And that the Democrats won’t reneg on a univeral health care financing system that equalizes public financing/subsidies — no matter what the already take care of seniors and public employee unions say.

  • Leaving aside Brad’s snark, it certainly seems to me that when Obama said “I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it” he meant that we can’t simply say “well, figure something else out” to the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on the automobile industry. He’s saying we can’t walk away from them, not saying we can’t walk away from “the automobile” in a metaphysical “I wish I knew how to quit you” sense.

    And he’s right, I think. It took us years to get into this mess, it’s going to take us years to get out, and I think those of us who recognize the need to make a significant change must realize that it can’t happen overnight.

  • anonymous

    It is true that, even with a massively expanded public transit system, there will still be cars in 2030. They may be mostly alternative fuel cars, but they will still be cars. It is simply not cost-effective to build public transit to every single place a person wants to go.

    I believe the best transportation policy in terms of improving energy efficiency is to heavily promote, expand and improve public transit in and between the nation’s most densely populated areas while simultaneously developing better technology and price incentives for energy efficient automobiles for the rest of the country. That should mean producing and buying many fewer cars, but certainly not zero cars.

  • Rhywun

    Do you remain hopeful that Obama “gets it” when it comes to the value of public transportation in reducing oil dependence and fostering sustainable communities, or is his seemingly unflagging commitment to propping up Detroit too much?

    Oh, he’ll say the right things here and there, but Congress will perform its usual city/anti-city, Democrat/Republican split–and many Democrats will join the Republicans for reasons Larry noted above–thus ensuring that no real change will happen. Also don’t forget that most of those workers Obama’s pandering to in Detroit are Democrats.

  • PaulCJr

    I’m glad someone else pick up on the incorrect statement he made on the history of the auto. We didn’t invent it as the other person mentioned, all we did was mass produce it and make it cheaper to buy. I also believe that when he states walking away from it, his simply telling autoworkers that we have their backs.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Oh, he’ll say the right things here and there, but Congress will perform its usual city/anti-city, Democrat/Republican split–and many Democrats will join the Republicans for reasons Larry noted above.”

    Which is the reason why the best federal transportation policy is no federal transportation policy.

    Let’s say the Dems really did reform health care, lifting a burden off state and local governments, and really did impose some kind of carbon cap or tax, making conservation and alternative energy pay? And let’s say that left no money for federal infrastructure spending. The feds take health care, state and local take transport. I’ll take that deal.

    Forget the words. The numbers come soon.

  • I don’t know what to make of the speech. I’ve yet to hear a emphatic articulation from the president of the economic and environmental problems caused by our public over-investment in highways, sprawl, and cars.

    How does one take apart or comprehend these speeches? For example, last night the president made a committment to curing cancer. The full quote: “Our recovery plan will invest in electronic health records and new technology that will reduce errors, bring down costs, ensure privacy, and save lives. It will launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American by seeking a cure for cancer in our time.”

    Huh? I’d be all for curing cancer, but notice how this goal — an enormous and perhaps untenable effort of basic and clinical research (most famously prioritized by the federal government in the National Cancer Act of 1971) — is sort of an afterthought to electronic records reform in the quote above.

    This is what grabbed my attention from the speech last night. I don’t know what to make of it. And I certainly cannot make heads or tails of more earthbound details of the speech, such as: the level of committment the president wants to give to liveable streets. It sounds to me like this falls somewhere between propping up the auto industry and curing cancer. Tea leaves, anyone?

  • My first reaction to Obama’s comment that we “cannot walk away” from the automobile was that I’ve done exactly that all of my adult life and never regretted it for a minute. But if he said anything else, he wouldn’t be leading the nation, he’d be provoking an insurrection that would undercut all of his other goals, like pulling our economy out of the deep fryer. I’m hoping to still have a job by the end of the year.

    What the president needs in transportation policy is to adopt a moderate position, pointing out to Americans that European cities (Munich is my most recent favorite) have both excellent roads and numerous excellent transit options. They haven’t walked away from anything. They’ve just achieved a finer balance than we have.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I guess you can say that the federal government didn’t walk away from the railroads while promoting the highways to take their place — it took over the pensions of railroad workers to cushion the decline.

    One could make the case that is a reasonable thing to do here as well.

  • Rhywun

    Munich is awesome. I have fond memories of riding the subway back to our host’s house after an evening at the Oktoberfest, half-drunk at 16 and my host “father” (the father in the family I lived with) being a little more than half-drunk…. And riding the tram out to Germany’s major film studio the next day. A beautiful city.

  • rex

    I agree that Obama could not say we are going to abandon the the auto industry. On the other hand did he have to say anything? Much less come out with a ringing endorsement that made driving sound patriotic.

    The first plank of his speech was about energy independence. The most direct, cost effective, and least painful way to move toward that goal is to reduce VMT. I was hoping Obama had the cajones and foresight to see that.

  • Moses

    America did not invent the automobile. Germany did.

    If Obama will lie about verifiable facts, I wonder where else he’s stretching the truth

  • Moses

    In fact, this is the second time Obama has repeated this blatant lie.

  • I prefer to think of it as convenient ignorance.

  • Steve

    While I would like a more balanced transportation system in the US, the fact is that 1 job in 10 in the US is dependent in some form or other on the auto industry. It’s not just the auto manufacturers, it’s the companies that supply parts to the auto manufacturers, and the companies that supply parts to those parts suppliers, the companies that supply the raw materials to those companies, the companies that supply services to all of those companies (cleaning, maintenance, etc.) and the companies that sell supplies and equipment to all of those companies (computers, copiers, paper towels, etc.). It’s the stores and restaraunts where the workers at these companies spend their wages. It’s the property and payroll taxes these companies pay. These are the things the US can’t just “walk away from”.

  • It would be interesting to see how many jobs transit generates, versus how many jobs cars generate, using some kind of common denominator like VMT. Does anyone have any figures?

  • the fact is that 1 job in 10 in the US is dependent in some form or other on the auto industry

    So what? We didn’t prop up other kinds of manufacturing when it all moved to China. We’re trying to prop up agriculture, with mixed results. The government is not a jobs program, and the longer we prop up failing business models the longer it takes to move on to something more productive.

  • Miguel Marcos

    I wasn’t able to watch so I read the transcript. When I read that phrase I thought to myself, wow, I would encourage people to do precisely that, WALK away from their cars, as much as possible if not totally.

    If he had suggested as much, there would be an uproar.

  • Omri

    The auto workers are the buggy whip makers of our day. We should help them find other work, but to tell them that we have their backs is to tell a lie. We don’t.

  • Ian Turner

    Steve,

    The implication is that we could get rid of the automobile and cut our work week by 10%. How is that a bad thing?

  • As some already pointed out, the country that did indeed invent the automobile (Germany) has been able to find a way to balance the convenience of the car with, the needs of those to use rail, mass transit, walking and biking. Its all about balance and making sure that the most appropriate form of transportation is the most convenient to use for a specific application.

    If one needs to get to a job only two miles away, it should be obvious to all that a bike is the best, most convenient and appropriate means of transportation. Within a mile it must be walking. Into a major dense metro area, train and mass transit. If you live on a farm in the rural Midwest and its 25 miles into town then yes; its best and most appropriate to do that trip in a car! In most of America unfortunately we are far from this balance and the automobile is all too often the only means for even the shortest trips.

    I can tell you from countless trips to Germany that is not the case there. Germans love their automobiles and its industry as much as most of America. They would never abandon it. Talks of the German government helping to bail our Opel (GM’s German subsidiary) show this. However because the German government is looking to help out its auto industry doesn’t mean it’s abandoning sustainable transportation. Far from it.

    As in Germany we in America need to find that balance. Heck! We’ll need trucks and other vehicles to build the sustainable transportation infrastructure of the future. I know I want those vehicles made here in America!

  • Oh yeah. One more thing.

    We may not have invented the automobile but we sure did perfect how to build a society that is totally dominated and subjugated by it. Unfortunately much of the industrializing Third World is following our lead directly into this trap.

    This is what we need to “walk away” from, not the industry and car itself. The car is a very useful tool as long as it is used wisely and made more clean and sustainable.

  • Automobiles maybe destined for other forms of energy (flying solar-powered?!) so I don’t think we should completely abandon it. However, I hope that Obama’s hint that we can’t “abandon” the auto industry was merely a political ploy with the GOP as well as with the auto companies and its workers.

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