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Americans Mixed On Bailout For Automakers

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Now let's look more closely at the case for an auto industry bailout. In a moment, the head of the United Auto Workers offers his view. First NPR's Frank Langfitt tells us what he's hearing from other people whose livelihoods would be affected.

FRANK LANGFITT: When it comes to loaning taxpayer money to Detroit, Darren Wilson's response is fairly common.

MONTAGNE: I think they should take the loans, and I don't think it's up to the rest of us to support industries that have pretty much done a lot of damage to themselves.

LANGFITT: Wilson blames the companies for hitching their futures to big profit SUVs and failing to hedge against high gas prices that demolished that business strategy.

MONTAGNE: They've never seemed to be a trendsetter. They always seem to be jumping on the bandwagon after it has already gone down the road.

LANGIFITT: Wilson runs his own ad agency in upstate New York, but what makes his words so striking is that he depends on the auto industry. All of his clients are car dealerships. If there isn't a bailout, wouldn't that hurt your business?

MONTAGNE: It certainly would. I'm not making these statements for my own self interest. Certainly I'm cutting my own throat.

LANGFITT: Wilson's attitude shows just how jaundiced some people are about the Detroit auto industry. In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 47 percent said providing loans to the firms was not very important. Another poll by Peter Hart Research, and funded by General Motors, was more upbeat. Fifty-five percent of respondents backed government aid.

MONTAGNE: I have really mixed feelings.

LANGFITT: Dallas Latham is a laid-off biomedical scientist in Oklahoma City. He's against a bailout. And he thinks auto executives should be punished for their mistakes. But he worries that tens of thousands of factory workers will end up on the street.

MONTAGNE: There is a part of me that really wants to see them just fall flat on their face, but then there is also, I know, that the ramifications for people losing their jobs, it would be a catastrophe.

MONTAGNE: We've been saying here in the parts department lately that we don't even say that we're slow anymore, we say we are dead.

LANGFITT: Matt, are you worried about your job?

MONTAGNE: I am extremely worried about my job. We've made a lot of cuts here at the dealership. Just in the last a couple of weeks, we've let people go who have been here ten plus years. I commute an hour and ten minutes every day, and to be completely honest with you, it's got me looking for a job closer to home that pays less just because maybe it will be more stable.

LANGFITT: Bailey concedes Detroit made some bad moves, but he also says it's unfair for the government to help financial companies and not carmakers.

MONTAGNE: These investment firms that the government is currently bailing out, they made plenty of mistakes, you know, they should have shown foresight, you know, and not done all the risky lending that they did. But regardless, we're bailing them out.

LANGFITT: Doug Hill helped build the Chevy Malibu and the El Camino in Kansas City, Missouri. Now retired, he writes a classic car column for his hometown paper in Norman, Oklahoma. Hill says many people don't want to help GM because the company sold them bad vehicles and they're still mad.

MONTAGNE: You get stuck with a big repair bill, I think it leaves a bad taste in people's mouths. As you know, it's the second biggest purchase most people make.

LANGFITT: Hill insists Detroit makes better cars now, and he's got a point. In a recent JD Power reliability survey, Mercury and Cadillac were just behind number one, Lexus. But Hill recognizes it takes years to change perception - time the industry doesn't have. And the stakes are high.

MONTAGNE: I think even the harshest critics realize how important it is to the economy. You know, from the dealerships in small towns to the part suppliers to the big assembly plants that most people think of, it touches this country from coast to coast.

LANGFITT: In fact, the strongest argument for a bailout of Detroit may be the economic pain that would follow without one. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.