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Will Michigan's Depression Drag Obama Down?

Unless Obama proves to Michiganders that he is committed to the state as it bleeds jobs due to government-mandated auto restructuring, 2010 could be a very good Republican year here.
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Think your state has it bad? Michigan's unemployment rate will likely hit 15 percent this year, thanks to the implosion of the auto industry.

That's the assessment of Dana Johnson, chief economist for Comerica. If either Chrysler or General Motors goes into bankruptcy, the damage would be far worse. Try an "unmitigated disaster," in the words of Gary Olson, director of the nonpartisan Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency.

For March, Michigan's unemployment was 12.6 percent, more than 4 points above the national average. And all 83 of Michigan's counties posted gains in unemployment, including Great Depression-era levels like 28 percent in Mackinac County. Cities like Detroit and Highland Park have had jobless rates topping 20 percent for months.

So what does this have to do with Barack Obama? His favorables might reach 72 percent, but his handling of the domestic automakers could spell big trouble -- 53 percent disapprove. Michigan gave the president a 16-point margin of victory last fall, but we have an unpopular Democratic governor who's getting a lot of blame for the economic crisis. Jennifer Granholm is term-limited and may pop back up in Washington -- she was widely considered a finalist for cabinet positions -- but her likely successor, Lt. Gov. John Cherry, could feel the wrath of Michigan voters' anger next year.

If Republicans successfully make the argument that Obama killed the auto industry -- an increasingly popular meme in Michigan -- and Granholm strangled the rest of the economy by raising taxes, the Democrats could be in real trouble here next year. That's why there's already a broad field of Republican candidates for governor, with more likely to jump into the fray. And independent polling, albeit from a GOP firm, shows that Cherry loses to all of them.

If that continues to hold, I predict you'll start to see a spate of Republican resurgence trend stories on Fox News and right-wing blogs.

"Michigan is the canary in the coalmine," a toothy pundit will chirp. "Americans are sick and tired of socialist tax-and-spend policies and Michigan is suffering the most of any state. That's why you're seeing the Republican comeback start in the Wolverine State."

Obama has made vague promises to help Michigan with job retraining, unemployment benefits and health care. He appointed Ed Montgomery as recovery czar. The stimulus money is helping the state, which has at least a $1.4 billion budget deficit for next year, keep its lights on. But when times are this rough, the political landscape is volatile. How the president plays it in Michigan is indeed one of his first political tests. Unless he proves to Michiganders that he is committed to the state as it bleeds jobs due to government-mandated auto restructuring, 2010 could be a very good Republican year here. And spell plenty of trouble for Obama in the Midwest for 2012.