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President Obama Comes To Detroit

President Barack Obama makes his way to the city today, mainly to tour a pair of auto plants and celebrate the success of his bailout strategy. That's nice, and I get the symbolism. And it's intriguing to think he may also have an opportunity to take a look at much of what lies between the two east-side factories, as has been poignantly noted. But even beyond this, even as he walks the factory floors and navigates the crumbling streets that connect the two plants, I have to hope that he also understands the deeper connection. I hope he understands how it's been over-reliance on that same symbolism in recent years, and the stasis it has induced, that have contributed to the despair and dilapidation that stretches between the Chrysler plant on Jefferson Ave. and the GM plant in Hamtramck.

Yes, the fact that there's still a pulse in the local auto industry is worth celebrating. But from what I read and hear, I get the sense that the symbolism that President Obama will be hailing today is more about his success in upholding a key element of Detroit's past than about helping set a course for our future. Sure, the companies that built those plants helped build this city. But their decline on these shores has also meant our decline. The jobs they once provided in abundance have dwindled. The work went away. So did many of the people. They were replaced by little more than creeping desolation.

Meanwhile, just like the once Big 3 suffered by staying mired in old business models and older-boy networks, the city they once made a power has lagged behind and stumbled onto hard times because of its inability to change. And we've gotten scant few public policies, from the White House or from City Hall, that have effectively addressed our plight.

I know President Obama has talked boldly about the future of manufacturing and technology in the U.S., about how the green revolution can replace the ones built on smoke and soot. I'm behind the brother there. Again, good-paying  jobs are always embraced here. But in this city, where unemployment is near 50 percent and where only a fraction of the people have college degrees, we need a vision for a relevant future, not just nods to our glorious past and sad present. Amid all the talk about aid to Wall Street and help for Main Street, we need the President to not forget real solutions for the Boulevard. The auto companies' recovery, however slight, hasn't been the city's. Although, in many ways, the fate of those companies and many in this town are still inextricably tied, it's becoming less so.

And in many ways, it needs to be. We're no longer the auto capital of the world. Worse, though, we're having a tough time figuring out who we should be instead. But we have to find a new direction, a new face, a new symbolism. I hope that the President is able to see that while he's here, too.

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