DETROIT (MCT) Barack Obama tried to make amends with the workers and leaders of Michigan's signature automotive industry on Wednesday after bashing it for most of the past year.
The auto industry is "taking steps in the right direction, but we have to do more. And they need a partner in the White House, and they will have one when I become president," said the Illinois senator, who is closing in on the Democratic presidential nomination.
He singled out General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC for progress in building better vehicles.
His comments marked a sharp departure from last May, when he chided the domestic auto industry for failing to effectively compete with foreign automakers during a speech to the Detroit Economic Club. Since then, he has often reminded voters of that speech and recently called the car he learned to drive in, a Ford Grenada, a "tin can" and one of the worst cars made by the Detroit Three.
Obama's visits to Macomb County and Grand Rapids, Mich., brought him several bits of good news as he worked to lock up the nomination. In Grand Rapids on Wednesday evening, former Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate and a candidate in this year's race until late January, endorsed Obama.
Earlier in the day, Obama picked up endorsements from three Michigan superdelegates, including Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano.
"Sen. Obama listened attentively and pledged to fight for the domestic auto industry and jobs," Ficano said.
Lauren Wolfe, a Royal Oak resident and president of the College Democrats of America, also said Wednesday she is endorsing Obama. So did Oakland County Commissioner Eric Coleman, president of the National Association of Counties.
In Grand Rapids, Obama spoke to a raucous rally at the DeVos Center where he introduced Edwards to wild cheers.
"There is one man who understands the need to create one America, not two Americas, and that man is Barack Obama," Edwards said.
Edwards praised the other Democratic candidate in the race, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, before encouraging Democrats to come together.
In an interview Wednesday, Obama disputed characterizations of his Economic Club speech, saying it showed his support for the auto industry.
"We want the strongest possible auto industry," he said. "But unless we change some of how we do business, we won't be competitive in the global marketplace."
His Economic Club speech said Detroit automakers were too focused on building light trucks and SUVs, instead of more fuel-efficient cars.
On Wednesday, he said: "I was honest with people. But Detroit won't find a better partner than me in the White House."
Obama's first Michigan stop was at Chrysler's Sterling Stamping Plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., before his town hall meeting in Warren, Mich.
Obama told more than 200 people at the meeting that he wants to invest billions to help the auto industry become more competitive.
He proposed a $150 billion federal investment over 10 years in the green economy, including incentives for the auto industry to develop more fuel-efficient cars; $1 billion a year to provide manufacturers with grants to convert to cleaner technologies; double the amount of federal money going into the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, to implement plant conversions, and $100 million a year for the Advanced Manufacturing Fund, which would invest in research and development of technological advances.
"When John McCain came to Michigan in January and said we couldn't bring back all the jobs, he was right, but where he was wrong was in suggesting that there was nothing we could do to replace those jobs," Obama said.
The olive branch may have come too late, said Lansing, Mich., political consultant Craig Ruff.
"He's got his work cut out for him to mend fences, not so much with the shareholders, but with the workers, who feel that nothing at the state or federal level is breaking their way," Ruff said. "Had he not poked a finger at the industry last year, I think he'd be in better shape today."
Michigan Republicans had harsh words for Obama.
Speaking on a GOP-sponsored conference call with Michigan reporters, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a presidential candidate and Michigan native, said Obama's ideas for economic growth which he said are a call for higher taxes and more regulation are much like those of Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
"I think the people in Michigan have found that the Granholm approach doesn't work," Romney said.
Obama also said Michigan Democrats don't have to worry about the state's 156 delegates getting turned away from the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.
"If I'm fortunate enough to be the Democratic nominee, I can guarantee you that Michigan delegation will be seated and they'll have a full voice at the convention," he said.
The state's delegation has been barred from the convention because Michigan moved its primary election up to Jan. 15 in violation of national party rules. The Democratic National Committee is to hold a hearing on the issue May 31.
A solution to the delegate situation floated by the Michigan Democratic leaders sounds reasonable, Obama told the Detroit Free Press newspaper.
The compromise would give Clinton 69 delegates and Obama 59, a compromise between an even split and Clinton's victory in the primary with no other major Democratic candidates on the Jan. 15 ballot.
"It provides the basis for solving the problem," Obama said. "Michigan is a big and important state, and I'll be back here a lot."
Obama had no problem finding supporters in Warren, Mich. Branden Reeves, 24, supported Clinton early on, but was won over recently by Obama.
"The old machine brigade came out of the Hillary campaign, and I wasn't happy about it," Reeves of Royal Oak, Mich., said. "Obama is new-school, and he's hopeful. That's what we need more than anything hope."
A few hours before the speech, A.J. O'Neil, owner of the Ferndale Cafe bearing his name, held an unofficial primary election between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama won 92 to 29. An excited O'Neil told Obama the results from his front row seat.
Obama smiled and said he thinks he could have won in Michigan if the state had followed the rules for a primary.