Column: President Obama was good to Detroit


Historically, cities like Detroit have done better under Democratic Party U.S. presidents than Republican ones.

During the New Frontier days of the John F. Kennedy Administration and the Great Society times of Lyndon B. Johnson, only New York City secured more federal dollars for housing, employment, and community development programs than Detroit. Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, and to a far lesser extent, Ronald W. Reagan and the George Bushes did offer programs and dollars, too. It should be noted, for example, Ford allowed Detroit to use Comprehensive Employment Training Act (or CETA) funds to return laid off city police officers to work during a cash-strapped period. It was a boom for a town that was earning the moniker of one of our nation’s most violent cities.

Similarly, the Jimmy Carter Administration recruited some of Mayor Coleman A. Young’s top lieutenants to serve in Washington, D.C. They included Dennis O. Green, finance director, and Bill Beckham, deputy mayor, among others. During the first two years of his administration, Carter pumped money into Detroit to help his friend Young whenever possible. The Clinton Administration, likewise, awarded Detroit a coveted empowerment zone designation, federal grants to hire police, and selected the city to host leaders from around the world during the March 1994 G-7 Employment Summit.

In a 60-page report issued earlier this month, the Obama Administration made its closing argument. It touted his leadership in saving the Detroit autos. Other examples include:

More than $260 million from the Treasury Department’s Hardest Hit Fund for demolition; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided another $13 million.

A $25 million Department of Transportation grant to buy 80 buses for streets and avenues like Gratiot and Grand River.

Fire Department earned more than $27.3 million, which enabled DFD to hire 150 firefighters.

Department of Justice awarded city police $2.1 million so that they can continue a community outreach and mobilization project to reduce, or eliminate youth-driven gun violence.

Obviously, there was considerable pressure on Obama to deliver the goods to places like Detroit because he’s black. At times, that notion conflicted with the idea that he needed to demonstrate that he was president of all the people—and not some of them. Thus, some complain that he was a disappointment to black America. He ran on and embraced a coalition “change” message, which attracted white, black, brown and Asian Millennials, Generation Xers and Baby Boomers; anti-war folks of all persuasions; and, of course, blacks in general.

Fact is, on balance, Obama did a pretty good job considering that during the last six years of his presidency he endured a healthy dose of shade from a Republican-led House and Senate whose leadership in a pre-inaugural cabal in 2009 vowed to never give him a victory—on anything.

Simply put, Detroit enjoyed considerably more bacon from the federal government during the 1960s but to compare that decade to the early 21st century in terms of government’s appetite for investing in inner cities is a futile exercise. It’s kinda like comparing basketball legends LeBron James to Michael Jordan; or Shaquille O’Neal to Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain.

Ken Coleman, a lifelong Detroit resident, is a former Michigan Democratic Party communications director.