Detroit residents express little faith in Washington to fix city, auto industry

By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010; A10

Few local economies have received as much federal attention and assistance in recent years as that of Detroit. But residents of this economically hard-hit region express little faith in Washington's ability to solve problems and are divided over the effectiveness of government efforts to reshape the automobile industry.

A new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University poll found deep skepticism that the massive federal investments have made a material difference in the lives of Detroit area families. More than eight in 10 said the government's efforts to combat the recession have made no difference to their families or have made things worse. Two-thirds said federal policies either have not helped or have hurt the Detroit area.

At the same time, however, Detroit area residents give President Obama strong marks for the way he has handled his job and believe the federal government should be doing more to try to assist companies that create jobs in the manufacturing sector -- one more indicator of the complex relationship between struggling workers and their government.

Washington has committed billions of dollars to the region's economy to cushion the effects of the recession -- money to bail out faltering automakers, directly stimulate the local economy and fill gaps in Michigan's state budget, which like others across the nation has been battered by the downturn.

Those investments might have prevented an even greater economic calamity for a region under pressure long before the current recession, as administration officials have asserted about the national effects of their policies. But to the workers of Detroit and their families, economic realities remain grim. Detroit has the nation's highest urban unemployment rate of any major metropolitan area in the country, and Michigan has the highest statewide jobless rate.

In the face of those statistics, it may be little wonder that area residents question Washington's capacity to solve problems. Sixty percent have a little or no confidence in the federal government to solve problems it takes on. Their pessimism is not limited to Washington, however. Even more -- 67 percent -- lack confidence in the state government in Lansing to effectively address issues.

Corruption a concern

Faith in local government is somewhat higher, with area residents roughly divided between those who are optimistic and those who are pessimistic. But that is also mitigated by a widespread perception that corruption is a rampant problem in the region. Eighty-eight percent of area residents called it a serious problem, with 62 percent saying it is "very serious," although a plurality say the condition is getting better.

There were clear differences in assessments of governments' effectiveness between black and white residents of the Detroit area. A majority of African Americans said they had confidence in Washington to solve problems, but a broader majority of whites expressed the opposite view. Democrats were narrowly positive in their assessment of Washington, while Republicans were strongly negative.

A majority of both blacks and whites offered a negative view of state government's capacity to solve problems, although whites were significantly more pessimistic. African Americans -- who primarily live in the city of Detroit -- are generally negative about their local representation, while whites who are concentrated in the suburbs are evenly split.

Gauging the proper role for Washington in dealing with the industry that built Detroit produced divergent opinions.

More Detroit residents blame management and labor for the auto industry's problems than say Washington was at fault. Eighty-two percent said management bears at least some blame, and 64 percent said so of labor unions, compared with just over half -- 52 percent -- who pointed a finger at Washington.

Although most said federal efforts to stimulate the economy have had little direct impact on their lives, they are more charitable in their assessments of Washington's role in helping the auto industry. Forty-five percent said federal actions have helped the automakers, while 32 percent said they have hurt. Most of the rest said the bailouts and other actions have not made a difference.

Those working in the auto industry are the most upbeat about government aid to the industry, with nearly two-thirds of them saying the assistance has helped the companies.

The Obama administration has played a direct role in forcing changes in the management of General Motors, at one point all but ordering the firing of former chief executive Richard Wagoner Jr. A plurality of Detroit residents said government's calibration of how much to intervene has been "about right," with three times as many of the others seeing government overreach as saying government was not sufficiently involved.

On that issue, there is a wide split between Republicans and Democrats. Sixty-four percent of Republicans said Washington overstepped at GM, but just 21 percent of Democrats agreed.

Job creation

Still, there are high levels of support across party and other lines for Washington doing more to create manufacturing jobs, once the backbone of the Michigan economy. Seventy-four percent voiced support for tax incentives for companies that create jobs in manufacturing -- higher than the 55 percent who said the federal government should do the same to create white collar or service sector jobs.

But in a sign that Michigan residents see development of a more diverse economy as essential to the state's future, 79 percent said government should provide tax incentives to create jobs in the renewable energy sector and a narrow majority say government should aggressively invest in research, technology and training.

The president drew favorable reviews from this heavily Democratic area. In the November poll, two-thirds said they approved of the way he has handled his job. Six in 10 gave Obama positive marks on the economy, with 55 percent saying they approved of how he has dealt with the auto industry. The same percentage gave him good marks for health care.

However, the politician with the highest approval ratings was newly elected Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, with 67 percent, although the mayor notched better marks in the suburbs than among his own constituents. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D), who has struggled throughout much of her seven years in office with the fallout of the state's slumping economy, drew lower marks. Despite the Democratic tilt to the area, just 39 percent said they approved of the job she was doing.

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