Letter from Detroit: Where's the Urban President?

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Carlos Osorio / AP

President Obama delivers a speech at the Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit

President Obama has been zipping across the industrial Midwest lately, touting the budding recovery of the auto sector, and for good reason. His $50 billion investment in General Motors and Chrysler pulled them from the brink of collapse, potentially saving millions of jobs. At a GM assembly plant in Detroit last week, he test-drove Chevrolet's new battery-powered Volt (about 10 feet, after getting reluctant approval from the Secret Service) and swiftly pronounced the ride "pretty smooth." The TV cameras rolled. The crowd of autoworkers cheered, right on cue. Just like a campaign rally: everything was perfect. Except it's not. Obama, America's first urban President, was visiting his country's poorest and most populous majority-black city. But the urban crisis unraveling outside the plants wasn't on the agenda.

Detroit's official unemployment rate is 24%, the highest among major U.S. cities. But officials here believe the actual jobless rate may be 50%, since the statistics fail to include people who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits or have stopped looking for work. To put this in historical context, a decade ago, Detroit's jobless rate was 6.7%. At the height of the Great Depression, in 1933, about one-quarter of Americans were unemployed. Today in Michigan, an estimated 44% of adults lack the fundamental skills, like reading, to qualify for the high-tech jobs the region is desperately trying to attract. An entire population is ill equipped to participate in the new economy.

Shortly after noon last Friday, as Obama's motorcade rode by Conner Street and Warren Avenue in Detroit, a clutch of women stood on the sidewalk, proudly waving signs that read, "OBAMA, OBAMA." But his tour of American industry — including a visit to a Ford plant in Chicago last Thursday — didn't include a single stop at a school. Mayor Dave Bing, who greeted Obama as he descended from Air Force One, barely had time to make the case for what ails his city.

By virtually every measure, Detroit is in crisis. Government employees wonder if they'll be paid, and contractors working with the city are skeptical about receiving paychecks. School performance has collapsed. The city can barely keep its parks open. The remaining middle-class neighborhoods are hiring private security patrols because there's little expectation that police will swiftly show up if an intruder strikes.

The tragedy of Detroit, and much of urban America, isn't of Obama's making. It has been created by more than a half-century of suburbanization, xenophobia and, in Detroit's case, overdependence on a single industry. Part of a President's job is to tout success, to boost the nation's confidence as well as the prospects of his political party. But ignoring America's failures is neglectful — especially by the nation's first urban President, who knows better. His grass-roots political skills were honed in some of the bleakest stretches of Chicago's Far South Side. As President, he created the first White House Office of Urban Affairs.

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