President Barack Obama greets visitors after signing the farm bill on Friday at Michigan State University in East Lansing. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
East Lansing— In a rare, one-on-one lunch meeting with a local official, President Barack Obama asked Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on Friday to see Duggan’s job creation plans in 90 days to coordinate federal support in the poverty-stricken and bankrupt Motor City.
Duggan and the president had lunch at the Michigan Biotechnology Institute in Lansing before Obama signed a five-year, trillion-dollar farm bill at the Michigan State University Equine Performance Center.
After the bill signing, Duggan told reporters he pitched ideas to Obama on how to put Detroiters back to work, lure manufacturing jobs back to the once-industrious giant and fix Detroit’s beleaguered bus system.
“We’ve got to get people to these jobs, and the president was very interested in how we can move people to jobs as quickly as possible where they exist today as we create more,” Duggan said. “I have a very specific idea on ways to bring jobs back into the city of Detroit, he was interested in it, and I have some work to do now.”
Duggan said Obama invited him to attend a meeting Thursday at the White House on creating job opportunities for young people.
“The president has a lot of good ideas, I’ve got some thoughts, and they invited me to come back to the White House ... so the relationship is building,” Duggan said.
That Obama would immerse himself in a single city’s crisis is a “classic sixth-year, midterm move” to remain relevant, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Detroit is one of the nation’s premier basket cases right now, and it’s the premier source of Democratic votes in Michigan — it’s not just another urban area,” Sabato said. “He needs to look like he’s doing something. ... his struggle over the next three years is to stay relevant when political conditions are not good for him.”
Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, said presidents occasionally feel compelled to get involved in municipal issues that could have national consequences.
He pointed to former President Gerald Ford’s decision to deny New York City federal aid during its 1975 financial crisis that nearly resulted in bankruptcy. Ford’s actions prompted the New York Daily News to run an infamous front-page headline that read: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”
Ford later got Congress to issue a $2 billion loan to keep the Big Apple from plunging into bankruptcy, Lichtman said.
“The Ford administration went beyond anything Obama has done at this point in Detroit,” he said.
Late last year, the Obama administration cobbled together nearly $300 million in new, repurposed and freed-up grants from the federal treasury and private foundations for several initiatives, including redirecting $52.3 million in Michigan mortgage aid to Detroit for blight removal.
In December, Duggan took part in a meeting at the White House with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and other big-city mayors on job creation.
On Friday, as they dined on salmon and rice, Duggan said he did not ask the president for a bailout to help the city end its 7-month-old bankruptcy case.
“We didn’t talk money, we talked strategy,” Duggan said. “Everything is about creating opportunities for people.”
In a statement, the White House confirmed details of the meeting, which included Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, and Don Graves, the president’s point man on Detroit issues at the National Economic Council. It said the president and Duggan discussed “new approaches to growing businesses and creating economic opportunity.”
“The president reiterated his administration’s long-term commitment to partnering with the mayor and local leaders to support the economic revitalization of Detroit, so that this iconic American city remains strong and vibrant.”
During his speech at MSU on the farm bill, Obama gave a shout-out to Duggan.
“He told me there’s one thing he wants everyone to know — that Detroit’s open for business,” Obama said.
But Detroit’s record-setting bankruptcy case and the potential far-reaching impact it could have on the sanctity of public employee pensions and municipal debt remained a backdrop of the discussion.
Duggan acknowledged he briefed the president on the status of Detroit’s bankruptcy, which Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is administering through a power-sharing agreement while the city remains under state control.
“He was interested in the relationship between Kevyn Orr and me — and I gave him a candid assessment,” Duggan said. “That’s something that will stay between him and me.”
Duggan has said publicly he and Orr are working together to turn around Detroit.
“We don’t fight,” Duggan told reporters.
Detroit News Staff Writer David Shepardson contributed.