Jennifer Granholm was elected governor of Michigan in 2002 and reelected in 2006, the first woman chosen to lead the state—the nation’s eighth-largest and home to America’s auto industry. The Canadian-born Democrat swept into office on promises of hope and change, and a commitment to diversify the state’s moribund economy. Out of office since January, she has coauthored a book, A Governor’s Story: The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future, with her husband, Dan Mulhern, in which she offers advice for a nation desperate to lower the unemployment rate. Edited excerpts of National Journal’s interview with Granholm and Mulhern follow.
NJ Why did you write A Governor’s Story?
GRANHOLM We wrote this book because we believe Michigan is the canary in the coal mine. Everything that is hitting the nation hit Michigan first.
NJ From your experience, what does it take to create jobs?
GRANHOLM It is an active government—not a big government, but a smart, active government—working in partnership with the private sector and the education community. Smart, targeted, strategic partnership with businesses to make them competitive in the global economy is what works. No state has the tools alone to compete with China, or India, or any global marketplace. We have to recognize that our economic strategies as a country have to change. The old economic theories are doing a disservice in a global economy where our economic competitors are actively luring jobs.
NJ There’s the idea that even without a college degree, if you work hard and play by the rules, your life and your children’s lives will get better. Is that era gone?
GRANHOLM Essentially, yes. We all have to wake up to the fact that the days when you could go from high school to factory and have a good middle-class life and work for 30 years and retire with a pension—those days are gone. We have to decide as a nation what is going to replace that and how can we be competitive.
MULHERN Maybe it’s possible to have a new era where high school graduates are ready to become entrepreneurs. They’ll have to be lifelong learners. To my mind, when the president points a finger to Washington, there needs to be some pointing of the finger at all of us and saying everyone’s got a role. This change that we’re talking about is so deep and powerful and dramatic that it requires change at every level.
NJ Some say that part of the problem is us, that we’re mistaking the American Dream for materialism. Do you agree with that?
GRANHOLM We’re too entitled, and people want instant gratification, and all people want to do is consume. And it’s true—you can be perfectly happy with a two-car garage and not have to have a three-car garage.
NJ Polls show that middle-class African-Americans and Hispanics are more optimistic about the future than middle-class whites. Why do you think that is?
GRANHOLM I think that when you have been secure and happy and the foundations of that security are pulled from under you and you are on the decline, you’re going to be pessimistic. The African-American community and many minority communities have been often at the bottom of the ladder, so they can look up and see an opportunity. They don’t feel like they’re descending further, but that there is some potential movement for them up. Their trajectories are opposite.
NJ In your book, Dan tells the governor to let go of her ego. What did he mean by that?
GRANHOLM I wanted to believe I could fix [everything]—that I did have a magic wand, I did have a magic formula. I had achieved everything I had set out to do in life; why couldn’t I fix this problem as well? But the reality is, that was all ego. It’s true for any leader that believes they can go in single-handedly and fix it. It’s true for anybody who’s running for president or any governor. The problems are very globally connected; there are circumstances that you don’t have control over. You have to let go of the ego and not think that you alone are going to fix this problem.
NJ You open one chapter with the inauguration of Barack Obama and you say, “The cavalry is coming.” Did you always feel it was the cavalry? Or were there times you felt that even the Obama administration was leaving you in the field?
GRANHOLM I certainly disagreed initially with the decision to move into bankruptcy [for the auto industry]. They proved me wrong, and that is terrific.
NJ There are people in Detroit whose jobs were saved by the auto bailouts, and yet they vote Republican. What do you make of that?
GRANHOLM I don’t understand it. I wish I could explain it.
NJ What would you say to Michigan native and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who opposed the bailouts?
GRANHOLM I very much feel that he is pandering to a national audience because he knows the bailouts were not popular nationally. I’ll be curious to see what he says when he comes back to Michigan.
This article appears in the September 24, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.