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Joe Biden labels auto industry 'iconic,' calls for 'empowered unions'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden threaded his economic policy goals into the final night of his party's convention Thursday as he described the coming election as a choice between a path "of shadow" and a path "of light."

Early in the night, the two-hour convention program featured a conversation with the former vice president and union workers, including Gerald Lang, a General Motors employee from Michigan who is also vice president of the United Auto Workers Local 5960 in Orion Township.

In response to Lang, Biden said the future of auto workers can be as great as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, an era of growth for the auto manufacturers.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del.

"It is an iconic industry," Biden said. "It is an American industry. We made it."

Much of Biden's speech, which came 75 days before the election, focused on his broader vision for the country and on his criticism of Trump's handling of COVID-19, issues of racial injustice and international relations.

"This is a life-changing election that will determine America's future for a very long time," Biden said. "Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot"

He said his economic plan is all about "jobs, dignity, respect and community," and he mentioned a future with "newly empowered labor unions"

Biden pledged to create 5 million manufacturing and technology jobs in part by fighting climate change and reversing Trump’s $1.3 trillion tax cuts for individuals and businesses as well as closing “tax loopholes.”

His speech earned praise from Michigan Democrats. One of his longtime supporters in Michigan, former Gov. Jim Blanchard called it the best address he's heard Biden give.

"I’ve known Joe for 46 years and I’ve heard him give at least 100 speeches," the former governor said.

On the other side of the aisle, Trump's campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Biden had "formally become a pawn of the radical leftists."

"His name is on the campaign logo, but the ideas come from the socialist extremists," Murtaugh said.

Thursday's finale briefly featured Edward Good, a 95-year-old World War II veteran from Farmington Hills who is backing Biden. 

Biden's remarks concluded the four-day convention, when a handful of Michigan officials got time in the national spotlight as Democrats hope to recapture the state in November.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was a finalist to be Biden's running mate, spoke on Monday, criticizing Trump's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, state Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, was one of 17 "rising stars" in the party who helped give a keynote address.

Also on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, officially cast Michigan's votes to nominate Biden for president. In his live speech from Belle Isle with three General Motors vehicles on display, Peters credited Joe Biden with helping save the auto industry in the state.

The Biden campaign plans to use Trump's record on auto manufacturing jobs against the incumbent. The campaign argues the former vice president's record on the subject, including his involvement in the 2009 auto bailout, gives him a strategic advantage over Trump. Biden also has been endorsed by the UAW as Democrat Hillary Clinton was four years ago. 

In December 2008, President George W. Bush gave $25 billion in emergency loans to GM, Chrysler and their lending arms during the economic recession. President Barack Obama's administration lent another $55 billion before forcing GM and Chrysler through expedited bankruptcy proceedings that were intended to avoid even worse job losses at auto suppliers and other auto-related firms.

Peters said Obama and Biden understood "you can't be a great country if you don't actually make things."

"They stood up and supported us," Peters said during a virtual rally Thursday night. "Joe Biden was there during a very tough time."

Democrats view winning Michigan as crucial to Biden's chances on Nov. 3.

In 2016, Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee to carry the state since 1988. He won Michigan by 10,704 votes, his narrowest margin of victory nationally.

"I think it's safe to say that it's impossible to be president of the United States if you do not win Michigan," said Peters, who is also on the ballot this year, running against GOP challenger John James, a businessman from Farmington Hills.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and Ray Curry of the United Auto Workers cast Michigan's votes for Joe Biden at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

"We have to deliver here," the senator said. "Joe Biden will not be president if he doesn't win Michigan.

Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic governor of Virginia and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, echoed that idea in a Thursday interview in which he called Michigan "absolutely key."

"Trump has failed the auto workers," McAuliffe said. "He promised to bring jobs and it just hasn't happened. We've just, in Michigan, got to remind people of that over and over."

He said he was apprehensive about the idea of a virtual convention before it started this week. But the convention, which has featured real voters sharing their stories along with former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has been "powerful," McAuliffe said.

Trump's campaign had a different take Thursday, saying there was no enthusiasm behind Biden.

"There is a reason that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris can't muster any enthusiasm for their ticket, even in their own party," said Donald Trump Jr., the president's son.. They are spineless, career politicians that have been failing the American people for decades."

The Republican National Convention begins Monday.

cmauger@detroitnews.com