ROCHESTER, Mich. — Ron Estrada and Kathleen Tschirhart have very different views of how much government should be aiding their ailing state, the home of America's auto industry.
Estrada, an auto industry engineer, and Tschirhart, who was laid off from one casino job and quit another, are typical of the voters who could determine who wins the pivotal state of Michigan in next year's presidential election. It's probably the state where President Barack Obama's economic policies should play best, since he helped save General Motors and Chrysler. Yet he's no shoo-in.
"The more the government gets involved in bailing out auto companies, the bigger the mess down the road," said Estrada.
He was out of work recently for two months, but he was able to get plenty of interviews and land a good job. Estrada sees government as overly bloated and intrusive. The Oxford resident will vote for a conservative next fall.
Tschirhart has a different outlook. She's training now for computer-related work. Her family was on welfare when she was younger. She likes Obama.
"He's doing the best he can," the Clawson resident said.
All over suburban Detroit, where people still feel the pain of auto industry turmoil, the political debate for 2012 proceeds like this: On paper, Obama should have an easy time here. He championed the $80 billion in aid to General Motors and Chrysler, which are now rebounding and repaying the government. Democrats say his economic stimulus program helped create thousands of jobs here. And Michigan hasn't voted Republican for president since 1988, and since 1992, Democrats have won the state easily. Obama had a 16.6 percentage point margin in 2008.
People here expect government to help them, and they don't expect any quick fixes. "People are so jaded. They've been down so long," said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nonpartisan newsletter.
They're also realistic about how much politicians can help.
"It's never gotten to the point of 'throw the bums out,"' said Tom Shields, president of a Michigan political consulting firm.
But Obama's fate is hard to assess. The state's unemployment rate in September, the latest data available, was 11.1 percent, 2 points higher than the national average but better in Michigan than in recent years.
"The reality is that Chrysler and GM are still around, and a lot of suppliers in western Michigan were helped by the bailouts, too," said Douglas Koopman, professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. "There is a sense it would have been a lot worse without the auto bailouts."
But whether Obama gets credit is "a jump ball," said Koopman. After all, President George W. Bush also gave the automakers bailouts. And as Michael Olexa, an Auburn Hills supermarket worker, put it, "A lot of unemployed people still can't find jobs."
People are also tired of the Washington gridlock. Bob Proctor, a retired Rochester Hills salesman, voted for Obama. But he's annoyed at how the president and Republicans keep bickering, "and we can't get anything going."
While people appreciate the safety net government can provide, many also see Washington as too eager to spend and too unwilling to provide incentives for businesses to invest and hire.
Angela River had to downsize from the six employees at her Auburn Hills hair salon over the last several years, and she figures the best thing government can do to help her is get out of the way. "I want a more business-friendly environment," she said. "We need lower taxes."
Jennie Vajcner, laid off recently as a gas-station clerk, worries about the ballooning federal deficit; after all, she figures, the government can't keep providing aid forever.
"Obama's just taking the money from one bank account and putting it in another," she said.
Her husband, Gary, a disc jockey who's seen his work cut back, has a philosophical reservation: "I don't think government should be owning auto companies."
And yet there appear to be equal numbers of people who praise Obama and the Democrats for at least trying.
"He's done fairly well compared to what he took over," said Mark Kovasity, a Chesterfield pilot. The deficit, he figured, ballooned at least in part because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and "Obama's trying to end the wars."
Tschirhart's mother was a single parent with five children. "Government helped us when we were poor," Tschirhart said. "I'm not into politics, but I do like Obama."
Estrada sees it differently.
"Being an American means we are self-reliant as well as charitable. We help each other," he said. "We're less concerned about the occupant of the White House and more concerned about the occupants of the house next door."
For him that means people, not government, are where you go to for help.
"Churches have provided more help to the poor and hungry than any government could," he said. "Even if you disregard the spiritual and moral function of the church, it is still a much more effective and efficient method of providing for the needy than a bloated federal or state government."
So which candidate will get Michigan's electoral votes next year? "People are looking for change," said Shields, the political consultant, "and everybody has a chance."
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