One of the most scrutinized claims in Paul Ryan’s speech is this one, in which he appears to blame President Obama for the fact that a General Motors plant he visited in 2008 has yet to reopen:
A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you ... this plant will be here for another hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.
But this morning, I spoke to a leading business official in Janesville, Wisconsin, who was at the center of efforts to save the GM plant — one who supports Paul Ryan — and he offered a nuanced version of the history that strains simplistic interpretations.
The official, John Beckord, who heads the pro-business group Forward Janesville, makes two key points. First, that the market for the GM product in question collapsed much faster than anyone expected it would at the time of Obama’s speech. Second, that there is no telling whether the plant would have reopened, even if the economy had recovered faster.
Ryan’s remarks have been pilloried because he seemed to suggest Obama was to blame for the plant’s closure, when the closing was largely completed in 2008. Ryan supporters object, claiming that wasn’t the intent of Ryan’s remarks. Fact checkers disagree, but even if you accept that, the larger story Ryan is telling here — that the plant’s continued closure to this day can be blamed on Obama’s failures — is a gross oversimplification of what happened.
Obama visited the GM plant and made the remarks Ryan cited in February of 2008 (Ryan’s speech omitted the month). This was before the economic collapse, and obviously well before anyone knew how bad that collapse would be. The plant announced its closing in the spring of 2008, Beckord says, because of a problem unique to GM: The contraction in the market for full size SUVs. “The market really collapsed,” Beckord says of that product.
State and local officials — and Ryan — made a full court press to save the plant, meaning they all thought it was salvageable. But at the time, says Beckord, no one knew that the market in that product — and the overall economy — would get a whole lot worse. So when Obama made his promise to keep the plant open, it was about providing government support to address GM’s problems, and his optimism was shared by local officials. “It wasn’t clear just how bad things were going to get,” Beckord said.
Ryan’s speech implies that the plant could have reopened later if the economy had picked up faster — an indictment of Obama’s economic failings. Asked directly if Obama is to blame for the plant remaining closed, Beckord offered a nuanced answer, but ultimately said that could not be stated with certainty.
Beckord said he thinks Obama did make some “serious” mistakes that resulted in a too-sluggish recovery. But he said GM’s problems went well beyond the economy, and that even three or four percent GDP wouldn’t have necessarily led to its reopening.
“GM’s situation was about more than the economy,” Beckord said. “GM’s situation also had to do with the product mix and its history of product issues. There were a lot of issues here besides the performance of the economy.”
Asked if the plant would have reopened under a better recovery, Beckord said: “We don’t know that.”