President Barack Obama carried Michigan twice by easy margins and remains popular in the state in the waning days of his administration.

So how should he be remembered here?

“From start to finish, this administration has been a real champion for the auto industry,” said Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. “Things would have turned out very differently for us if we didn’t have a president who understood that we need to make things in America.”

As the president prepares to leave office this week, here’s a look at some of his policies and the effects they’ve had on Michigan:

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Auto industry: As Obama entered office in 2009, General Motors and Chrysler teetered on the verge of collapse amid huge costs, plummeting sales, high gas prices and frozen credit markets. Former President George W. Bush’s administration had provided a bridge loan to the companies after the Senate couldn’t reach a deal to provide funding for the automakers, but more help was needed.

Critics, including several Republican senators, blasted the idea as a governmental effort to pick winners and losers, saying it would encourage recklessness by other industries.

Obama pushed through an almost $80-billion bailout that included $51 billion for GM and $12.5 billion to Chrysler, on the condition they submit viable restructuring plans, which were achieved through bankruptcy. Another $18.7 billion was sent to their financing arms.

By 2015, the government said it had recovered most of its investment with the final cost to taxpayers of about $9.3 billion — about $30 for every American. Without the government’s help, the companies would have faced chaotic liquidation with job losses estimated in the millions.

“It was not just a factor for those two automakers,” said Jay Baron, president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. “All the suppliers were teetering on bankruptcy, too.”

The move was controversial at the time, but Baron said that with the benefit of hindsight, it was undoubtedly the right thing to do.

“Where would we be if the administration hadn’t done it?” he said.

Stabenow said she was surprised by the controversy surrounding the auto bailout compared with the willingness to help banks. In 2008, the government agreed to pour more than $700 billion in a bailout of banks and other financial services companies.

“The fact that the Obama administration was willing to work with us and lead this effort was extraordinary,” she said.

Today, the automakers are healthy, logging record profits last year. But not everyone feels good about the bailouts.

As part of the GM bankruptcy, the pensions of about 22,000 salaried Delphi retirees, including more than 5,000 in Michigan, were cut by between 30% and 70% while UAW members and other union workers saw their pensions topped off with the help of government money.

Those Delphi retirees have sued but seven years later, they are still fighting the Obama administration for access to documents they can take to trial.

“The president ran on the idea that people who work hard and play by the rules should be treated fairly,” said Chuck Cunningham, legal liaison for the Delphi Salaried Retirees Association. “Guess what? One of the first things he did was treat a group of people who worked hard and played by the rules very unfairly.”

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Detroit comeback

The Obama administration was a key partner in helping Detroit emerge from bankruptcy and begin its rebound, providing both money and expertise, Mayor Mike Duggan said.

The federal help included:

  • The Treasury Department’s Hardest Hit fund contributed $260 million to demolish blighted properties and promote greening projects.
  • The Department of Transportation contributed $37.2 million for the M-1 Rail project along Woodward Avenue and another $25 million for new, more environmentally friendly buses and $10 million for bike lanes and other non-motor improvements.
  • The Labor Department provided $5 million for job training and another $2 million for a summer jobs program.

“We couldn’t have asked for better partners than President Obama and Vice President (Joe) Biden,” Duggan said. “Very early on, the president made Detroit’s comeback a priority and took the extraordinary step of sending a team of talented individuals from the White House to be on the ground here to work directly with our administration.”

Federal money helped improve Detroit’s public transit by allowing for the 24-hour bus service on key routes.

“We’ve also been able to install 65,000 new LED lights across the city, take down more than 10,000 dangerous structures and create a new mortgage program that is helping more Detroiters become homeowners,” Duggan said. “Detroiters will never forget what President Obama and his administration have done for our city.”

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The Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare, reformed the nation’s health care system in numerous ways including expanding access to Medicaid in Michigan, helping 600,000 low-income residents obtain health insurance. Another provision in the law allowed another 70,000 young to adults stay on their parents’ health care insurance until they are 26 years old.

“It’s an incredible legacy in Michigan,” said Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy, a nonprofit advocacy group. “The bottom line is, hundreds of thousands of people got health insurance who were totally uninsured before.”

Jacobs said Republican Gov. Rick Snyder deserves credit as well for agreeing to expand Medicaid in Michigan, despite opposition from within his party.

She said in addition to covering more people, the law brought other benefits as well. Insurance providers are barred from denying coverage to people with a pre-existing condition and required to cover preventative care. Prescription drug costs for seniors have declined. With more people insured, hospitals have saved money on uncompensated care.

Critics of the law include many small-business owners, who typically buy their own insurance.

“Our issue has always been costs,” said Rob Fowler, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. “Health insurance premiums are continuing to go up and it’s wicked expensive for an individual or sole proprietor.”

Fowler said the mandate that businesses with 50 or more employees provide health insurance to their employees has made some small businesses reluctant to hire.

“I know a lot of small businesses that don’t want to hire their 50th employee,” Fowler said.

“Is it perfect? No. But it is so much better than what we had before,” Jacobs said. “Michigan has definitely benefited from this.”

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President Barack Obama speaks to Flint residents about the water contamination issue at Northwestern High School Wednesday, May 4, 2016 saying , “I see you. I hear you… I’ve got your back.” Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press (Photo: Regina H. Boone, Detroit Free Press)

Flint water crisis

In 2014, state appointed emergency managers approved switching Flint’s water source from the Detroit system, which had provided water since the 1960s, to the Flint River.

Researchers later found that the river water was far more corrosive than the Lake Huron water Detroit provided and the failure to add corrosion controls to the water prompted the Flint water crisis — during which residents were exposed to dangerously high lead levels in their drinking water for 15 months before the state acknowledged a problem. The city, which was already financially struggling, desperately needed help for public health and infrastructure.

“The president invited me to the White House early last year because he wanted to hear firsthand about the man-made water disaster and what we needed in Flint to start the healing and recovery process,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said. “I told him about our lack of staff and that we needed assistance in that area as well as other financial resources to improve our infrastructure and he said, ‘I got your back.’”

Obama would later repeat those words to Flint residents in person, when he visited the city in May, spending a day talking with state and local leaders as well as residents affected by the crisis.

“That was huge,” Weaver said. “He let us know that we matter, that he cares about what happened here and he was willing to do what he could to help and he has done that and it’s meant so much to me and to the citizens of Flint.”

Last month, Congress approved $170 million to help Flint.


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Gordie Howe International Bridge

After years of delays, work has begun on a new bridge across the Detroit River. The Canadian government is building the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which could be completed by the end of 2020.

The Obama administration approved the permits for the bridge

“Governor Snyder is deeply appreciative of the Obama administration’s contributions to the Gordie Howe International Bridge project, which have been significant,” said Andrew Doctoroff, Snyder’s point person on the project. “The administration has, among other things, approved the presidential permit for the border crossing and allowed Canadian funds used in Michigan to become eligible for billions of dollars in Federal Highway Administration matching funds.”

When states spend money on roads, the federal government kicks in a match. Even though the Canadian government is funding the bridge, the Obama administration agreed to allow the money the Canadians spend on the American side to count as a Michigan road funds for match purposes.

“In so doing, the administration has taken steps that will help generate thousands of jobs and strengthen this entire region’s transportation infrastructure,” Doctoroff said.

Despite repeated requests from Michigan lawmakers, the Obama administration never set aside funding for the $250-million customs plaza at the new bridge.