Mike Stevens | Feb 26, 2009

US President Barack Obama on Tuesday (US time) addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time since taking office, and in it he laid out his plans for the world's largest economy, currently deep in recession.

In his address, which covered a range of critical issues confronting the troubled economy including healthcare and foreign debt, the US auto industry came in for special mention.

"We are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win," President Obama said.

"Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented (whoops) the automobile cannot walk away from it."

Mistaking the nationality of Karl Benz notwithstanding, there is no doubt that citizen Henry Ford was the man who turned the automobile from a coach-built plaything for the rich to the mass-produced 'affordable transport' that we know today.

Presidential support is not a free ride, however. President Obama is not planning on letting the car companies forget that their own fingerprints are on the shovels used to dig the hole the Big Three now find themselves in.

"As for our auto industry, everyone recognises that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices," the President said.

Love them or loathe them, there is little doubting the influence that American car manufacturers have on the world's car industry. General Motors has only recently ceded the title of 'World's Largest Carmaker' to Toyota, and, even bloodied and bowed with stalled sales, its output is immense.

How well they "re-imagine" themselves and "re-tool" will be the critical factor in their ultimate survival. Congress is becoming increasingly impatient and adversarial towards GM and Chrysler in particular - many do not believe that US tax-payers should be tipping tens of billions in loans into the car companies' begging-bowls.

There is increasing traction in the US Congress for the notion that "maybe it might be better to just let them fall over".

An uncontrolled collapse of GM or Chrysler however would be a political disaster for President Obama - he's from Chicago, Illinois, after all - and have dire social and economic consequences for the reeling US.

We can only hope that GM, Chrysler and Ford get back to making the kind of cars people want as well as the kind of cars people need. Then, maybe, American motorists might start buying them in sustainable numbers.

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